CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Browns have learned the hard way that it is tough to re-sign your players once they hit free agency, and one year after losing four starters on the opening day of the new National Football League year, they are being proactive about building for the future.

The Browns signed offensive lineman Joel Bitonio to a five-year contract extension on Thursday, a year before he was due to hit the open market.

“I am so excited to be part of the Browns organization,” Bitonio said in a release announcing the move. “I want to thank the Haslams, Sashi (Brown), (Hue) Jackson, Chris (Cooper), everyone for getting this done. They have unbelievable faith in me and I have faith in them. I am really pumped to be here to try to help build this up and turn the Browns around.”

Although Bitonio has been successful in clearing the way for the running game and protecting the quarterback in his three years with the Browns, injuries have brought to a premature end each of the last two seasons.

Bitonio has played in just 15 of a possible 32 games over the last two years.

After a standout rookie season in 2014, Bitonio was expected to be a key part of the Browns’ offensive line in 2015, but an ankle injury limited him to just 10 games, and ultimately, led to his placement on injured reserve following a lopsided loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in December of 2015.

Following an offseason to heal, Bitonio played in the first five games of the 2016 season, but was forced to the sideline for the remainder of the year because of a Lisfranc injury in his right foot that required surgery in mid-October.

Even when Bitonio was in the starting lineup, the Browns were without three-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, both of whom left the organization in free agency for the Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs, respectively.

During the 2016 season, the Browns surrendered 66 sacks for 309 lost yards, and their top three starters each suffered through at least 18 sacks in limited play behind an offensive line that lost two starters, Bitonio and John Greco, to Lisfranc injuries.

“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 Sashi Brown, the Browns’ executive vice president of football operations.

“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.”