Best Linebackers in Cleveland Browns History
Who Are the Greatest Linebackers in Cleveland Browns History?
As the heartbeat of a team's defense, it pays dividends to have a strong staple of linebackers. And even though the Cleveland Browns have never had a linebacker represent them in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the position has long been a steady one for the franchise. From Cleveland's roots in the All-America Football Conference to its NFL dynasty of the 1950s to its playoff-rich years in the 1980s, the Browns have been strong at the linebacker position.
Selection Criteria for This List
This list of the 10 greatest Cleveland Browns linebackers of all-time also includes a handful of honorable-mention candidates. 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 Carl Banks would be a great player to include on a list about the New York Giants, his 2½ sacks over 2 seasons in Cleveland won't make the cut here. Now, without further ado, let's count down the top 10 linebackers in Cleveland Browns history! Feel free to chime in with your thoughts on these selections!
5. Chip Banks
- Seasons With Browns: 1982–86
- Playoff Appearances: 1982, 1985–86
- All Pro: 1983
- Pro Bowl: 1982–83, 1985–86
- Awards: NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (1982)
William "Chip" Banks burst onto the scene as an NFL rookie after being selected out of the University of Southern California with the No. 3 pick in the 1982 NFL Draft. He instantly emerged as a standout left outside linebacker and garnered multiple accolades after helping the Cleveland Browns make the playoffs in the strike-shortened campaign. Banks became the third Browns player to be named Rookie of the Year (he remains the only defensive player in franchise history to win the award), and was the fourth rookie in team history to make the Pro Bowl.
Over five seasons, Banks would never miss a start with the Browns, helping the franchise win American Football Conference North Division titles in 1985 and '86. With Cleveland, Banks recorded 27½ sacks, recovered 6 fumbles, and intercepted 5 passes. His best postseason game came against the New York Jets in 1986, when he had 1½ sacks in a thrilling 23–20 overtime victory.
But as much of a game-changer as the college All-American was, he also brought off-the-field issues, including two contract holdouts with the Browns. Though he was a superstar, Cleveland made the decision to part ways after the 1987 season, sending him to San Diego Chargers in a trade that also involved swapping draft picks. The primary return for Banks turned out to be rookie linebacker, Mike Junkin—who was one of Cleveland's worst draft picks of all-time.
4. Galen Fiss
- Seasons With Browns: 1956–66
- Playoff Appearances: 1957–58, 1964–65
- All Pro: 1962
- Pro Bowl: 1962–63
Even though Galen Fiss was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 1953, he didn't make his debut until 1956. A brief try at a baseball career and a stint in the Air Force kept him away from football, but once Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown convinced him to join the Browns, a legendary career was born. Fiss would provide stability as an outside linebacker for the next 11 seasons, establishing himself as one of Cleveland's top tacklers and intercepting at least 1 pass in 9 of his first 10 seasons.
Fiss is well-remembered for his play during the 1964 NFL Championship game against the Baltimore Colts. The Browns were heavy underdogs in the game, but pulled off a stunning upset with a 27–0 victory. Early in the game, Fiss—who was one of the team's captains—made a crucial open-field tackle that likely prevented a touchdown, and he later tipped a pass that was intercepted by teammate, Vince Costello. Over 139 games, Fiss recorded 13 interceptions and recovered 18 fumbles.
3. Jim Houston
- Seasons With Browns: 1960–72
- Playoff Appearances: 1964–65, 1967–69, 1971–72
- Pro Bowl: 1964–65, 1969–70
James "Jim" Houston was very familiar with a couple of things about football—winning and playing at many different positions on the field. Houston played offensively and defensively at Ohio State, and was brought to the Cleveland Browns as the No. 8 draft pick in 1960 to play defensive end. After a coaching change before the 1963 season, he was converted to linebacker and became a dominating force from the left side who was known as one of the best in the league.
Houston was an aggressive defender who missed just 3 games during his 13-year career, and he helped the Browns capture a winning record every season. He had 14 interceptions—including one he returned 79 yards for a touchdown—and recovered 11 fumbles in 177 games. He appeared in 9 postseason games and was the on the field for Cleveland's 1964 championship, helping contain future Hall of Fame tight end, John Mackey, in a 27–0 upset of the Baltimore Colts. By winning that title, he achieved a rare feat—winning a state championship (Massillon Washington High School, 1953), a college national championship (Ohio State, 1957), and a professional championship in the same state.
2. Walt Michaels
- Seasons With Browns: 1952–61
- Playoff Appearances: 1952–55, 1957–58
- Pro Bowl: 1955–59
When the Cleveland Browns gave Walter "Walt" Michaels a second chance, he did not disappoint. After drafting Michaels in 1951, the Browns traded him to the Green Bay Packers before the season started. He moved into a starting role with the Packers, but was sent back to Cleveland for the 1952 season, and that's when he settled in long-term on the right side and became one of the best linebackers ever in Browns history. A reliable starter who missed just two games for the Browns, Michaels was deservedly the defensive signal-caller for many seasons.
As a ferocious and hard-hitting tackler, it's believed that Michaels would have been among the league leaders in tackles and sacks had those statistics been tracked during his era. He did intercept 11 passes (returning 2 for touchdowns) and recovered 8 fumbles to help the Browns advance to 6 NFL Championship games, which included wins in 1954 and '55. In 1954, he intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble in the championship game against the Detroit Lions, and in 1955, he also had an interception when the Browns defeated the Los Angeles Rams.
1. Clay Matthews Jr.
- Seasons With Browns: 1978–93
- Playoff Appearances: 1980, '82, 1985–89
- All-Pro: 1984
- Pro Bowl: 1985, 1987–89
- Awards: Browns Ring of Honor
When the Cleveland Browns opted to draft William Clay Matthews Jr. with their top draft pick in 1978, not everyone thought it was a great decision. The Browns, however, were convinced that his athletic ability justified drafting him instead of someone else who would fill a greater positional need. They were rewarded with one of the most durable defenders in NFL history. Matthews would burst into the starting lineup in 1979 and never look back, playing a franchise-record 232 games over 16 seasons in Cleveland, firmly establishing himself as the greatest linebacker in Browns history.
Matthews recorded 62 sacks (even though none from his first 5 seasons were counted in official statistics), and was a force from the right side with 1,430 tackles, 24 forced fumbles, and 14 interceptions with the Browns. He helped the team to the postseason in 7 seasons, and started 10 playoff games. I believe his greatest play in Cleveland came during the divisional round of the 1989 playoffs, when he intercepted a pass by Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly with 3 seconds to play. The game-sealing interception on the 1-yard line secured a 34–30 win.
Matthews has been a semifinalist in the Modern Era Committee's Hall of Fame voting four times, and if he were to gain induction, he would join his brother, Bruce—who was a standout offensive lineman for the Houston Oilers. Clay Jr. and Bruce were also the first set of brothers to play on the same team in a Pro Bowl, when they did so in 1988 and '89. Their father, Clay Sr., played in the NFL in the 1950s, and both Clay Jr. and Bruce have sons in the NFL. That has left the Matthews family as one of three in NFL history to have three generations of players.
With several standout linebackers in the history of the Cleveland Browns, I've decided to include a handful of players who also left an indelible mark on team history, but didn't quite make the top five.
Vince Costello (1957–66)
Much like teammate, Galen Fiss, a brief baseball career and a stint in the Air Force preceded the football career of Vincent "Vince" Costello. He came to the Cleveland Browns in 1956, but didn't play until '57 due to an injury. But once he was in the starting lineup as a middle linebacker, he missed just two games before he was traded to the New York Giants after the 1966 season. He had 18 regular-season interceptions with the Browns—including 7 in 1963—but his biggest play came during the 1964 NFL Championship game, when he intercepted Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas as part of Cleveland's major upset victory.
Mike Johnson (1986–93)
As a sure tackler, Michael "Mike" Johnson played a key role on several playoff teams for the Cleveland Browns in the late 1980s. He had at least 100 tackles in 5 of the 6 seasons between 1988–93, leading the Browns each time he reached the milestone. His efforts from the middle linebacker position also saw him make the Pro Bowl in 1989 and '90. He was well on his way to another stellar season in 1991, but a broken foot cost him all but five games. He rebounded with 176 and 181 tackles in 1992 and '93, respectively. He signed with the Detroit Lions after that, but finished his Cleveland tenure with 20 forced fumbles, 11 sacks, and 10 interceptions.
Tony Adamle (1947–51, '54)
Anthony "Tony" Adamle did not have a conventional career with the Cleveland Browns. Though he had established himself as a talented linebacker, he was also used as a fullback in his first three seasons to help the Browns win a trio of championships in the AAFC. When Cleveland merged into the NFL in 1950, he became focused on just defense and made back-to-back Pro Bowls. Despite being in the prime of his career, Adamle then retired to attend medical school. He returned for the 1954 season when the Browns were ravaged by injuries, and his play helped him earn a fifth championship.
Who Are the Current Cleveland Browns Linebackers?
Following the 2019 season, two of the starting linebackers for the Cleveland Browns switched teams. Joe Schobert left for the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Christian Kirksey—who only played two games in 2019 due to a torn pectoral muscle—signed with the Green Bay Packers.
That leaves Lyndell "Mack" Wilson as the lone returning starter for the 2020 season after the rookie was on the field at the start of the final 14 games of 2019. Fellow rookie Sione Takitaki also played in 15 games. Veteran signee, B.J. Goodson, will be in position to replace Schobert—who missed just 3 games over the past 3 seasons and recorded at least 100 tackles every year. In the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft, the Browns selected Jacob Phillips from LSU.