BEREA: A year ago, the Browns threw Jason Pinkston to the wolves after Eric Steinbach suffered a season-ending back injury during training camp.
At the time, Pinkston was a rookie who didn’t have the benefit of a normal offseason because the NFL lockout wiped it out. He also was in the process of converting to guard after playing tackle during his entire career at the University of Pittsburgh.
Pinkston, a fifth-round draft pick in 2011, started all 16 games at left guard last season and took some lumps along the way. But now with a year of experience and an offseason packed with grueling training under his belt, the Browns view him as one of their most promising young players.
“Last year was a learning experience,” Pinkston said. “Now I know what to do. It’s time to grow and build off it. I’ve come pretty far from switching from tackle to guard. The bar is high. The coaches are holding me accountable. I’m holding myself accountable.”
In March, the Browns cut Steinbach, who recently signed with the Miami Dolphins, and they’re counting on Pinkston to lock down the left side of the offensive line alongside Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas for the foreseeable future.
“I think he’s gonna be one of the top guards in the league,” Thomas said. “He’s made a big jump already from where he was last year, and he’s gonna be a great player on this line for a lot of years.”
Thomas said Pinkston’s technique is noticeably better than it was in his first professional season.
“His footwork has improved greatly,” Thomas said. “He’s always been a big, strong kid, but he didn’t have the guard footwork right away because he played tackle his whole career. Asking somebody to move from tackle to guard, it’s totally different. He looks like a guard now ’cause he’s very athletic for being a big guy. He can move his feet, and he’s finally figured out that where your feet go and how your feet work is gonna determine where your hands go, and that’s [a deciding factor in whether] you’re gonna block the guy or not.”
The 6-foot-4, 318-pound Pinkston spent much of the offseason training about five times a week at LeCharles Bentley’s O-Line Academy in Avon. Pinkston said the intense workouts with Bentley, a Pro Bowl offensive lineman with the New Orleans Saints whose NFL career ended after he suffered a knee injury and a staph infection as a member of the Browns, helped him improve his strength, quickness and technique.
“I was pushing cars, flipping tires, pulling cars, bear crawling with a truck,” Pinkston said. “It was a lot of hard work.
“They actually are the hardest workouts I’ve been through. There were some pretty hard ones in college with [Pitt strength and conditioning coach] Buddy Morris, but this is more just offensive-line specific, so it’s been great.”
The training has already paid off.
After the Browns held their first practice of the year in pads last week, coach Pat Shurmur praised Pinkston for his performance. He and Thomas repeatedly cleared holes for rookie running back Trent Richardson, the third overall pick in this year’s draft, to zoom through en route to long gains.
“Absolutely you love to run block,” Pinkston said. “There’s no better feeling than moving someone out of a hole and seeing a back come flying past for a gain of 5 or 6 yards or 10 yards or scoring a touchdown. When you see a running back score a touchdown, it feels like you scored a touchdown.”
Thomas believes he and Pinkston will create quite a formidable tandem.
“I think we’re really developing a good camaraderie and a chemistry over there,” Thomas said. “I think we’re gonna be pretty solid in the run game. … Having a nice, physical running back behind us, I think it’s gonna be big time for us.”
Of course, a key reason for such optimism is Pinkston’s baptism by fire last year and his progress since.
Said Pinkston: “Now that I’ve got the experience and I’m not hearing the plays for the first time, it’s time for me to take the next step in my career.”
The Browns were off Sunday but are scheduled to practice from 2 to 4:30 p.m. today.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.