By TOM WITHERS
CLEVELAND (AP) The Browns are building a wall for their to-be-determined franchise quarterback.
Cleveland will sign free agent right guard KEVIN ZEITLER when the free agency signing period opens Thursday, a person familiar with the negotiations told the Associated Press. Zeitler’s signing will follow the team giving left guard JOEL BITONIO a five-year extension, said the person who spoke on condition of anonymity because nothing can be announced until the new NFL league season begins at 4 p.m. EST.
In fortifying the interior of their line, the Browns are fixing one of their major weaknesses. Cleveland’s line, which was ravaged by injuries last season, gave up a league-high 66 sacks and was a major reason the Browns went 1-15.
Zeitler, who spent the past five seasons with Cincinnati, will be reunited in Cleveland with coach Hue Jackson. Before he was hired by the Browns, Jackson spent two seasons as the Bengals defensive coordinator.
Zeitler will replace JOHN GRECO, who underwent foot surgery last season.
With Bitonio, Zeitler and Pro Bowler JOE THOMAS up front, the Browns, who are also in the market for a center, have quickly turned a problem area into one of their strengths.
Now, all they have to do is find that elusive franchise quarterback and the Browns have the means to acquire one either through trade or in the upcoming draft. Cleveland has the No. 1 overall pick, the No. 12 and six selections in the top 65.
Bitonio has sustained season-ending injuries the past two years, but the Browns believe the 25-year-old has Pro Bowl potential and wanted to lock him up to a long-term deal.
“It’s important for us to identify the young talented players on our roster, who fit our culture and make sure they remain Cleveland Browns,” said executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown. “Joel has proven that he is a smart, tough, physical football player and we view him as one of the best young linemen in this league. He exemplifies what we look for in a young leader on and off the field.
“We are excited to keep him here to be part of our foundation for a number of years to come,” Brown said.
The Browns have plenty of other holes and they are expected to address a few of them when the free agency-signing period opens. Cleveland began the day nearly $102 million under the salary cap and the Browns have been aggressive over the past few days in lining up deals.
Wide receiver is a pressing need and the Browns have targeted veteran KENNY BRITT, who played for the Los Angeles Rams last season. A former first-round pick, the 28-year-old Britt caught 68 passes for 1,002 yards and five touchdowns last season.
The Browns are also considering re-signing Terrelle Pryor, the former quarterback who gained 1,007 yards in his first full season at receiver and was one of Cleveland’s only positives in 2016.
Pryor’s agents met with Cleveland’s front office last week at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, but the sides have been unable to secure a deal.
For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL