Best Defensive Players in Cleveland Browns History
Who Are the Greatest Defensive Players in Cleveland Browns History?
The vast majority of players to represent the Browns in the Pro Football Hall of Fame played on the offensive side of the ball. That, however, doesn't mean the franchise hasn't seen its fair share of talented defenders. Only two defensive players who spent the majority of their careers with Cleveland have ended up enshrined in Canton, but along the way, the Browns have rostered a plethora of other standout defensive stars.
Defensive strength began in Cleveland's earliest days, as Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown brought on a multitude of stars that helped his team dominate the short-lived All-America Football Conference from 1946–49. More talent would join during the 1950s after the Browns merged into the NFL and started a dynasty. Throughout the 1960s and early '70s, the defense would continue to help the Browns stay relevant, and in the late '80s, a big group of star defenders banded together for a five-year stretch of success. Cleveland's defense hasn't been as potent since the 1990s, but the team hopes to find defensive firepower again sooner than later.
Selection Criteria for This List
This is a list of the 10 greatest Browns defensive players of all-time, and also includes a handful of honorable-mention candidates and the franchise's defensive records. The criteria used to develop this list includes:
- Legacy Honors (Hall of Fame, Ring of Honor, retired number, etc.)
- Single-Season Honors (MVP, All-Pro, Pro Bowl, etc.)
- On-Field Success (league leader, playoff appearances, records, etc.)
- Longevity (years with Browns, percentage of career with Browns, etc.)
Only games played with the Browns are factored into this list, so while Hall of Fame defensive lineman Willie Davis would be a great player to include on a list about the Packers, his eight starts in two seasons with the Browns won't make the cut here. Now, without further ado, let's count down the top 10 defensive players in Browns history! Feel free to chime in with your thoughts on these selections in the comments.
10. Jim Houston
- Seasons With Browns: 1960–72
- Position: Linebacker
- Playoff Appearances: 1964–65, 1967–69, 1971–72
- Pro Bowl: 1964–65, 1969–70
It's likely the Browns were already pretty familiar with Jim Houston's talent before drafting him in the first round of the 1960 NFL Draft. His older brother, Lin, had played on the offensive line for the Browns and coach Paul Brown from 1946–53, so he was surely putting in a good word for Jim—who was busy winning championships at Massillon Washington High School and Ohio State University. He would later achieve the trifecta of championships by helping the Browns claim the 1964 NFL title. Dependable, fast, and strong, Houston started his career as a defensive end, but moved to outside linebacker after Brown was replaced as head coach before the 1963 season.
Houston missed just 3 games throughout his 13 years in action, and Cleveland never had a losing season during his career. He intercepted 14 passes—including 3 he ran back for touchdowns—and he added 1 interception in the postseason, snatching a pass in 1969 against the Cowboys. One of Houston's finest efforts, however, doesn't show up directly in the game statistics. The Browns were heavy underdogs in the 1964 NFL Championship game against the Baltimore Colts, but with the help of strong defense, Cleveland came away a 27–0 winner. Houston was assigned to help defend future Hall of Fame tight end, John Mackey, who gained just two yards in the game.
9. Warren Lahr
- Seasons With Browns: 1949–59
- Position: Defensive back
- Playoff Appearances: 1949–55, 1957–58
- All-Pro: 1951–55
- Pro Bowl: 1953
The Browns and Steelers weren't yet rivals, but if they had been, Warren Lahr would have had his own short chapter in the story of the rivalry. Lahr was drafted by Pittsburgh in the last round of the 1947 draft, but suffered a major knee injury and was released. The Browns promptly signed him, let him recover throughout the 1948 season, and slotted him into the starting lineup in '49. An 11-year tenure of greatness was born, and it saw Lahr help the Browns to 4 championships. As a rookie, he made several key interceptions down the stretch of the regular season and was a big factor in a 21–7 victory over the 49ers in the final AAFC title game.
Intercepting passes was a huge part of the lore of Lahr, whose 44 career interceptions stood as a franchise record until the 1980s. He had at least one interception each season he played, and had at least five in every campaign from 1950–55. In 1950 and '51, he returned two interceptions for touchdowns to lead the NFL in both seasons. Also in '50, Lahr had an interception in a one-game tie-breaker against the Giants that determined which team would represent the American Conference in the NFL title game. Cleveland won, 8–3, and Lahr added two interceptions in the following week's title game, a 30–28 win over the Rams.
8. Michael Dean Perry
- Seasons With Browns: 1988–94
- Position: Defensive lineman
- Playoff Appearances: 1988–89, '94
- All-Pro: 1989–91, '94
- Pro Bowl: 1989–91, 1993–94
- Awards: AFC Defensive Player of the Year (1989)
It's not often a player drafted 50th overall rises to the ranks of Defensive Player of the Year by his second season, but Michael Dean Perry was a textbook example of what an overlooked player looks like. Quick and nimble, but also mammoth, Perry weighed in around 285 pounds, and was among the NFL's top defensive lineman for the duration of his 7-year career in Cleveland. His agility allowed him to overcome double-teams and record at least 4 sacks in each of his first 6 seasons, and he brought down a quarterback 51.5 times with the Browns—easily the most among Cleveland defensive lineman since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.
As a rookie, Perry scored the only touchdown of his career in a must-win matchup to end the season. That's when he recovered a fumble and ran 10 yards to help the Browns secure a playoff spot with a 28–23 victory over the Oilers. Perry would help lead the Browns into the postseason again in 1989, but the team would struggle over the next several seasons, even though Perry remained a star. In 1994, Perry posted below-average numbers, but the team's defense allowed just 12.8 points per game and went back to the playoffs. Cleveland would release Perry following the season, with the team citing concerns about the injuries that slowed him a little bit during the '94 season.
7. Walt Michaels
- Seasons With Browns: 1952–61
- Position: Linebacker
- Playoff Appearances: 1952–55, 1957–58
- Pro Bowl: 1955–59
The Browns once gave up on Walt Michaels. Luckily, they gave him a second chance, and that's when they watched him develop into one of the top defensive players in their history. After the Browns drafted Michaels in the seventh round of the 1951 NFL Draft, the former Washington and Lee University standout was traded to the Packers during the preseason. It was an eight-player swap that landed the Browns the rights to negotiate with defensive lineman, Bob Gain, who became a seven-time All-Pro for Cleveland. Making that trade even better, the Browns reacquired Michaels by sending Green Bay three more players before the 1952 season to fill the void created by the retiring Tony Adamle.
Michaels provided the Browns with stable health and balanced play from an outside linebacker position over the next decade, helping his team win NFL championships in 1954 and '55. He was an important player in both of those matchups, recording an interception and recovering a fumble in a 56–10 rout of the Lions in '54, and snaring another interception in a 38–14 win over the Rams in '55. In the regular season, Michaels likely would have been among the NFL leaders in tackles and sacks had those categories been tracked in his era, but he did have 11 interceptions in 133 games—including 2 he returned for touchdowns. After his playing career, Michaels had an extensive coaching career in the NFL.
6. Frank Minnifield
- Seasons With Browns: 1984–92
- Position: Cornerback
- Playoff Appearances: 1985–89
- All-Pro: 1988
- Pro Bowl: 1986–89
- Awards: NFL 1980s All-Decade Team
Frank Minnifield did not take the conventional route to the NFL. After walking on to the football team at the University of Louisville, Minnifield became a star and was drafted into the United States Football League—a short-lived league that directly competed with the NFL from 1983–85. He struggled with injuries, wiggled out of his contract in 1984, and then signed with the Browns. That's when he teamed up with fellow cornerback Hanford Dixon and formed one of the greatest defensive duos in NFL history. Despite standing just 5 feet, 9 inches tall, Minnifield, otherwise known as "Mighty Minnie," was one of the top defensive backs in the NFL in the 1980s.
Minnifield played 122 games for the Browns, recording 20 interceptions. That included at least three per season at the height of his career from 1986–89, but his career total was deflated because opposing quarterbacks didn't usually throw to the receiver he was covering. While he never returned an interception for a touchdown, he scored twice in the regular season. In 1986, he returned a fumble for a touchdown, and in '88, he carried a blocked punt into the end zone. Minnifield did, however, take an interception back for a touchdown in a 38–21 victory against the Colts in the 1987 postseason.
5. Hanford Dixon
- Seasons With Browns: 1981–89
- Position: Cornerback
- Playoff Appearances: 1982, 1985–89
- All-Pro: 1986–87
- Pro Bowl: 1986–88
As an elite cornerback from the time he was drafted in the first round of the 1981 NFL Draft, Hanford Dixon was invaluable to the Browns throughout the 1980s. Going into the 1984 season, Dixon had grown tired of mediocrity (Cleveland was 18–23 from 1981–83), so he encouraged the team's linebackers to be more aggressive in their pursuit of quarterback sacks. The result was another poor showing in the standings (5–11) but a great improvement on defense (No. 6 in the NFL in opponent scoring). A coaching change came in the middle of season, and the defensively minded Marty Schottenheimer would transform the Browns into a winner.
Dixon would later be known as the "Top Dawg" and the portion of the stands right behind one end zone at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium became known as the "Dawg Pound." That rowdy section remains in place at FirstEnergy Stadium and will forever be Dixon's lasting legacy with the Browns. Not that his play won't be remembered. He had 26 interceptions in 131 games over 9 seasons, though that number was limited because quarterbacks tended not to throw to the receiver who Dixon was defending. The Browns opted not to retain Dixon after the 1989 season, leading him to accept an offer from the 49ers, but he was injured in the preseason and retired instead.
4. Bob Gain
- Seasons With Browns: 1952, 1954–64
- Position: Defensive lineman
- Playoff Appearances: 1952, 1954–55, 1957–58, '64
- All-Pro: 1955–59, 1961–62
- Pro Bowl: 1957–59, 1961–62
Bob Gain left the University of Kentucky as a consensus All-American, but it wasn't until later seasons that he would see significant time in the NFL. Gain was drafted by the Packers in the first round of the 1951 NFL Draft, but he and the team could not come to terms on a contract, so he left for the Canadian Football League. After one successful season there, he returned to the NFL, where his rights had been traded to the Browns in an eight-player swap with Green Bay. He posted a strong rookie campaign to help Cleveland win the 1952 NFL championship, but then spent a year in the Air Force.
Gain returned to the NFL for the last two games of the 1954 season, then played in every game through '63. That streak would likely have continued had he not suffered a career-ending broken leg in 1964. He primarily played on the left side of the defensive line, but was able to play every position along the line. In 126 games with the Browns, he recovered 15 fumbles and had 1 interception, which he returned 22 yards for a touchdown. Additionally, he was a perfect 3 for 3 on point-after touchdown kicks in 1952.
3. Clay Matthews Jr.
- Seasons With Browns: 1978–93
- Position: Linebacker
- Playoff Appearances: 1980, '82, 1985–89
- All-Pro: 1984
- Pro Bowl: 1985, 1987–89
- Awards: Browns Ring of Honor
No player in the history of the Browns has played in more games than Clay Mathews Jr., and that's not the only franchise record he holds. Matthews was a force as an outside linebacker for 16 seasons, making him the best linebacker and one of the most popular players to ever play for Cleveland. He holds career records for sacks (62) and tackles (1,430), though neither stat was counted in the earliest days of the NFL. In fact, sacks weren't counted in the first five seasons of Matthews' career. As for tackles, Matthews had at least 100 in a season 8 times.
Matthews was a critical member of the late 1980s defenses that helped push the Browns into the playoffs each year from 1985–89, though none of those teams would appear in the Super Bowl. In the divisional round of the 1989 playoffs, Matthews made a critical interception against the Bills to secure a 34–30 victory. It was his only interception in 10 playoff games, but he did also record two sacks in the postseason. Matthews is a Hall of Fame hopeful—he's been named a semifinalist in voting by the Modern Era committee four times—and if elected, he and his brother, Bruce, would become the first set of brothers ever enshrined.
2. Len Ford
- Seasons With Browns: 1950–57
- Position: Defensive lineman
- Playoff Appearances: 1950–55, '57
- All-Pro: 1951–54
- Pro Bowl: 1951–54
- Awards: Hall of Fame (1976), NFL 1950s All-Decade Team
When Len Ford played in the AAFC, he could only watch as the Browns dominated the league. As a rookie tight end and defensive end for the Los Angeles Dons in 1948, Ford had no way of knowing he'd join those fearsome Browns just two seasons later. The Dons were disbanded when the AAFC folded after the 1949 season, and the Browns selected Ford in the second round of the AAFC dispersal draft. With that pick, they found one of the best defensive linemen in franchise history. Even though Ford had shown strong receiving abilities with the Dons, the Browns already had so many offensive weapons that he was used exclusively on defense.
Ford helped revolutionize how players on the ends of a defensive line played, as he often rushed the quarterback from the outside instead of the inside. His aggressive style helped Ford recover 19 fumbles in 8 seasons with the Browns—including 14 during his peak playing years between 1951–54. He was also a big reason why Cleveland won NFL titles in 1950, '54, and '55. That was especially true in the 1954 championship game, when he had two interceptions in a 56–10 win over the Lions, and he also added an interception in the 1955 championship game—a 38–14 win against the Rams. In the regular season, Ford had just 1 interception in 88 games with the Browns.
1. Bill Willis
- Seasons With Browns: 1946–53
- Position: Defensive line
- Playoff Appearances: 1946–53
- All-AAFC: 1946–49
- All-Pro: 1950–53
- Pro Bowl: 1950–52
- Awards: Hall of Fame (1977), Browns Ring of Honor, NFL 1940s All-Decade Team
Bill Willis anchored the defense for the Browns in their first eight seasons of existence. As such, he won five straight championships to open his career and appeared in the championship each of the next three seasons. During Willis' tenure, the Cleveland defense allowed the fewest points in the league six times and the second-fewest in the other two seasons. He helped the Browns finish as the only team in AAFC history to never give up more than 200 points in a season.
In 1950, the Browns weren't expected to be competitive in their first season in the NFL, but players like Willis helped them finish with a 10–2 record and a spot in a one-game playoff to see which American Conference team would advance to the NFL title game. In that matchup against the Giants, Willis made multiple defensive stops near the goal line as the Browns nursed a 3–0 lead, and he then was part of the contingent that tackled New York quarterback Charlie Conerly for a safety in the eventual 8–3 victory. Cleveland would then defeat the Rams a week later for the NFL title.
Just as important as his on-field contributions, however, was his place as one of the African-American players to break football's modern-era color line in 1946. Willis and teammate, fullback Marion Motley, were the only black players in the league at the onset of the AAFC, and two players for the Rams broke the NFL's color barrier the same season. Both Willis and Motley overcame racism during their earliest seasons to become Hall of Fame players. Overall, Willis played 99 regular-season games for the Browns.
With so many standout defensive players in the history of the Browns, there were numerous players right on the cusp of being included among the top 10. Listed below are several players who left an indelible mark on team history, but didn't quite make the cut.
Thom Darden (1972–81)
Thom Darden is the owner of the Browns' career interception record (45) and is tied for the single-season interception record (10), and is remembered as one of the finest defensive backs in franchise history. Darden came to Cleveland as a first-round draft pick in 1972 and never played for another team. He primarily played as a free safety, was named an All-Pro three times, and was selected to one Pro Bowl. That came in 1978, when he led the NFL with 10 interceptions, which he returned for a NFL-best 200 yards. His career total of yardage from interception returns (820 yards) is also a franchise record.
Jerry Sherk (1970–81)
Jerry Sherk opened his career with the Browns in front of a primetime audience and continued on to become one of the best defensive linemen in franchise history. He debuted in the first Monday Night Football game in history, and for the next 12 seasons, Sherk was a mainstay for Cleveland's line, though he did struggle with injuries in his later seasons. In 1975, he was voted the best defensive lineman in the NFL by the offensive linemen, winning the short-lived Bulldog Award, and in 1976, he was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He was also a four-time All-Pro and got selected to the 1976 Pro Bowl. In his career, Sherk had 12 fumble recoveries and 3 interceptions.
Bill Glass (1962–68)
When the Browns and Lions made a six-player trade in 1962, Bill Glass was an afterthought in a headlining deal that saw the teams exchange quarterbacks. Glass, it turned out, would be the best player involved in the trade. As a tenacious defensive end, Glass would make four Pro Bowls with Cleveland and helped the Browns win the 1964 NFL championship. Sacks weren't counted as official statistics while Glass played, but he was consistently pressuring the quarterback. Glass didn't miss a game with the Browns until a career-ending injury late in the 1968 season.
Clarence Scott (1971–83)
One of the most dependable players in Browns history was legendary defensive back Clarence Scott. During his 13-year career, the only game he missed came during his rookie season. Otherwise, he was there for Cleveland—both as a safety and a cornerback. He didn't earn a lot of accolades—he was only named a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro in 1973—but did intercept 39 passes and recover 11 fumbles during his career. He had at least two interceptions in every season of his career, except for his sophomore campaign.
Defensive Records for the Cleveland Browns
Defensive records for teams are difficult to track since some basic statistics of today's NFL (most notably tackles and sacks) weren't recorded by the NFL for several decades. Below are a handful of Browns defensive records which are contained in the NFL record book.
Cleveland Browns Defensive Records
- Career Interceptions: 45, Thom Darden (1972–81)
- Single-Season Interceptions: 10, Anthony Henry (2001) and Darden ('78)
- Single-Game Interceptions: 3, 11 times (last was Anthony Henry in 2001)
- Longest Interception Return: 100 yards, Brodney Pool (Nov. 18, 2007)
- Career Sacks*: 62, Clay Matthews Jr. (1978–93)
- Single-Season Sacks*: 14, Reggie Camp (1984)
- Single-Game Sacks*: 4, Andra Davis (2003)
- Longest Fumble Return: 89 yards, Don Paul (November 10, 1957)
*Sacks became an official statistic in 1982. Records here reflect only official statistics.