Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe

Browns sign OL Steinbach to 7-year deal

Former Cincinnati Bengals offensive lineman Eric Steinbach answers questions at the Cleveland Browns headquarters in Berea, Ohio Saturday, March 3, 2007. The Browns signed free agent Steinbach to a seven-year contract, the club announced today. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

BEREA, Ohio --Eric Steinbach shed his Bengals stripes for a chance to help turn around another awful NFL team.

The coveted free agent offensive lineman, who spent his first four seasons pro blocking for Cincinnati, signed a seven-year, $49.5 million contract with the Cleveland Browns on Saturday.

The deal guarantees the 26-year-old $17 million, but Steinbach said his newfound wealth won't make him any different.

"I'm not going to change," he said. "People might look at me and perceive me differently. "But I've always been a simple, middle-class guy and that's the way I'm going to stay."

Steinbach's versatility -- he's played guard, tackle and center -- made him attractive to the Browns, who have focused on rebuilding their offensive line this winter following a 4-12 season.

The 6-foot-6, 290-pounder is slender by NFL standards..

"He plays with leverage, he has great feet and he plays the game a lot bigger," offensive line coach Steve Marshall said. "He's one of the better ones."

Steinbach is a natural left guard, but has made two career starts at tackle.

"Obviously, I'm more comfortable at guard," he said. "We'll have plenty of time before the season starts to figure it out. Wherever the coaches want me to play is fine. I'll keep an open mind for tackle, center or whatever."

This is the second straight season the Browns have scored big early in free agency. Last March, they signed Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley to a six-year, $36 million contract. However, Bentley suffered a season-ending and possible career-threatening knee injury early in training camp.

That misfortune made signing Steinbach crucial.

Steinbach said he has no animosity toward the Bengals, who gave large contracts to offensive linemen Willie Anderson and Levi Jones in recent years. He appreciates teams wanting to strengthen themselves up front first.

"I think to turn a team around, the offensive line is where it has to start because that is the nucleus of the team," he said. "If you can have a solid offensive line, five guys who play together and if everyone stays healthy and plays all 16 games, you'll see a huge difference."

The only blemish on Steinbach's resume is an arrest in August for boating under the influence on the Ohio River, one of nine Bengals arrested last season. As part of a court diversion program, the charge was dropped and he agreed to a boating class, 10 hours of speaking to children about the dangers of alcohol and a $500 donation to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.