10 Best Running Backs in Cleveland Browns History

Updated on November 28, 2019
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The Greatest Browns Running Backs of All Time

Throughout the history of the National Football League, the Cleveland Browns have donned some of the greatest running backs of all time. Of the 51 running backs, fullbacks, tailbacks, and halfbacks enshrined in the Hall of Fame, the Browns have four. This is tied for the second-most in NFL history, with only the Chicago Bears having more with five, two of which played before the Browns were even founded.

The following list will cover the greatest running backs to ever be a part of the Cleveland Browns franchise. The list will cover the players' stats, their dominance during their era of play, their impact on the team's history, and their awards and accolades. Players selected to this list are determined by their versatility both running and catching the ball, their overall dominance during their careers or years with the Browns, and their All-Pro selections or Hall of Fame eligibility. These players have their fingerprints all over the Browns' and NFL records.

Peyton Hillis at Browns training camp.
Peyton Hillis at Browns training camp. | Source

10. Peyton Hillis (2010–2011)

Peyton "The Albino Rhino" Hillis had one of the shortest careers in Cleveland on this list, but he also had one of the greatest impacts. He's mostly known for being the most unrecognizable NFL player to ever grace the cover of the Madden video game in 2012. In 2011, Madden allowed for their cover athlete to be chosen by the fans with an online voting bracket. Each team was given two possible players to vote for, eliminating players weekly until a final player was chosen.

Cleveland fans rallied together to make sure that they were noticed as one of the greatest fanbases in the NFL, putting a relatively unknown player like Hillis on the cover. During the voting period, Hillis beat out perennial pro bowlers and some future Hall of Famers such as Aaron Rodgers, Ray Rice, Matt Ryan, Jamaal Charles, and finally, Michael Vick. The final vote for the championship round garnered a whopping 66% in favor of Hillis over Vick.

Hillis may have gained national fame because of that vote, but Cleveland fans discovered him the previous year when he became a top running back in the NFL seemingly out of nowhere. His career started as a fullback for the Denver Broncos, but a preseason trade brought him to the Browns in 2010. Injuries to the Browns' two starting running backs put Hillis in the starting role in Week 3 of the season against the Baltimore Ravens, and he never went back to the bench. Hillis would end that season with 1,177 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. He also added an additional 477 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns as well.

Hillis' running style was powerful. It was not unusual for him to run over defenders, or drag them along behind him as he powered his way down the field. Despite being 6’1” and 240 lbs, Hillis would even occasionally leap and hurdle over his opponents. In 2010, he averaged 4.4 yards per carry and caught 79% of the passes thrown his way.

Unfortunately, his career in Cleveland would end the following year after holdouts over money and head-scratching statements and injuries. Hillis sat out of a game in 2011 for strep throat, a sickness that many believed should have been played through. At one point in an interview about the fans' unhappiness with his play, he also claimed he wanted to be a CIA agent. This led to questions about his mental health and love of the game.

After a disappointing second season, the Browns didn't offer him a contract, allowing him to leave the team and continue his career in Kansas City. He never had a significant season again and retired in 2014.

Jamal Lewis during the Cleveland Browns 33-30 OT win over the Baltimore Ravens on November 18, 2007. Lewis finished with 92 rushing yards and a touchdown in his return to the Baltimore.
Jamal Lewis during the Cleveland Browns 33-30 OT win over the Baltimore Ravens on November 18, 2007. Lewis finished with 92 rushing yards and a touchdown in his return to the Baltimore. | Source

9. Jamal Lewis (2007–2009)

Jamal Lewis isn't just an all-time Browns running back, he's also an all-time Ravens running back. In 2007, the Browns signed Lewis after he spent his first six seasons with the rival Ravens. He immediately made a significant impact. Lewis rushed for 1,304 yards and 9 touchdowns his first year with the Browns. That season, the Browns ended the year with their first winning season since 2002, finishing with a record of 10–6 and narrowly missing out on the playoffs by one win.

The team had hope for the first time in years, and a huge part of that was due to a strong running game led by Lewis. That season, he had stellar performances. He ran for 216 yards against the rival Bengals, averaging an amazing eight yards per carry! Against the Seahawks, he amassed four rushing touchdowns. Against Buffalo, in a game that ended 8–0, Lewis carried the ball 33 times for a whopping 163 yards for the win. The excitement in Cleveland was bursting at the seams!

The following year, Lewis rushed for another 1,000-yard season, finishing with 1,002 yards on the ground. His final season was the following year in 2009, when he ran for exactly 500 yards before retiring. Lewis currently sits 10th all-time in rushing yards for the Browns' franchise.

8. Earnest Byner (1984–1988, 1994–1995)

Earnest Byner is typically part of a horrible memory in Cleveland. "The Fumble" was when he fumbled on the one-yard line and cost the Browns a chance to go to the Super Bowl in 1987. However, his career was exemplary. He should be remembered for the way he played the game with powerful dominance and how well he was able to catch the ball as a dual-threat running back.

Byner rushed for 1,002 yards his second year and added an additional 460 yards receiving. It was his best season as a Brown. Byner finished his career with the Browns with 276 catches for 2,630 yards, making him the second-best receiving back in Browns' history. He also rushed for 3,364 yards and 27 touchdowns in his career, all while sharing a backfield with Kevin Mack.

Byner was the running back for the team for three of their American Football Conference Championship appearances. Despite his memorable fumble in 1987, he was also the sole reason the Browns were able to stay in the game up to that point. In that game, he had 187 all-purpose yards and singlehandedly kept the Browns close.

He was a versatile back who could run, catch, and even return kicks. His career should be remembered with honor, and not for one terrible play that unfairly immortalizes him today. In 2019, he was nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Kevin Mack reveals new Browns uniforms in 2015.
Kevin Mack reveals new Browns uniforms in 2015. | Source

7. Kevin Mack (1985–1993)

Kevin "Mack Truck" Mack was drafted in the supplemental draft in 1984. In his first season, alongside Browns running back Earnest Byner, Mack rushed for 1,104 yards while scoring ten total touchdowns. Mack was a perfect complement to Byner, being one of the best one-two punches in the NFL at running back. Despite his power-inspired nickname, Mack also had the soft hands needed to be a versatile back who could also catch the ball. He was part of the last dominant era of Browns football in Cleveland and has since said he believes that the newest era of Browns shows similarities to his team.

Mack currently works for the Browns organization in alumni relations. He's been a part of various events and was even interviewed for the documentary on Cleveland's history of sports called Believeland. He's a very vocal part of the city and is often seen at events for the team and in videos and promotions. He embraced the Cleveland fanbase and remained in the area after his retirement. He calls it home to this day.

In Mack's career, he caught 197 passes for 1,602 yards and eight touchdowns. He was selected to two Pro Bowls and was also part of the team's three AFC Championship appearances in 1986, 1987, and 1989. He was also selected for the 1985 All-Rookie team in the NFL. Mack currently sits fifth in rushing yards and fourth in rushing touchdowns in the Browns' franchise history.

6. Eric Metcalf (1989–1994)

When you hear the name Eric Metcalf in Cleveland, it's usually because of the phrase "Metcalf up the middle." The saying isn't famous because Metcalf was a bruising back who ran into the teeth of the defense, but as a slight against the play-callers who underutilized his talent. Metcalf was flashy, fast, and could score from anywhere, at any time. Instead of utilizing his talents, with sweep runs, short throws, or other plays that would set him free, the coaches would often send him right up the middle as if he were any other typical back.

Looking at Metcalf's stats, you may think he was a subpar running back, but he was more versatile than any other back on this list. Metcalf ran the ball, caught the ball, and was one of the Browns' best return men of all time. In the Browns' franchise history, he currently sits tenth in rushing yards, tenth in receptions, third in punt return yards, fourth in kick return yards, and he has the most receptions by a running back. He also led the league in punt returns four separate years, three of which were with the Browns. In 1997, he led the entire NFL in kick returns, return yardage, return touchdowns, and had the longest kick return touchdown of the season, totaling 101 yards.

In short, Metcalf may not have had the greatest rushing stats but he certainly had the most talent all around. He was selected to three Pro Bowls and was a two-time First-Team All-Pro. In 2019, Metcalf was selected as a nominee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert pursues Cleveland Browns running back Greg Pruitt in a 1975 game between the teams.
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert pursues Cleveland Browns running back Greg Pruitt in a 1975 game between the teams. | Source

5. Greg Pruitt (1973–1981)

Greg Pruitt was drafted in the second round of the 1973 NFL draft. Pruitt was a smaller back in the league, but this never stopped him from producing at a high level. Pruitt tells the story of how, as a child, other children wouldn't allow him to play football in the neighborhood. One day, he offered to play center for both teams, because none of the other boys wanted to play on the offensive line. The boys accepted. He said he would fake a snap and take off running, dominating the other kids and finally proving that his size wasn't an issue. This success continued on into his college years, and eventually his NFL career.

After a promising first season, he took over as the lead running back his second season. After his first two years in the league, Pruitt rushed for over 1,000 yards three years in a row. In those three years, he totaled over 4,200 total yards and 18 total touchdowns. Pruitt was also known for his ability to catch the ball, averaging 35 receptions per year while he was with the Browns. In his final season with Cleveland, he caught 65 passes for 636 yards!

Pruitt was able to do all of this while splitting carries with Mike Pruitt, a fellow running back of no relation to Greg. Despite Mike getting more carries than Greg throughout their time together, Greg was able to amass a stellar career with Cleveland.

While in Cleveland, Greg Pruitt made it to four Pro Bowls. He currently sits fourth in career rushing yards for the Browns' franchise.

Marion Motley, American football fullback, on a 1950 Bowman football card
Marion Motley, American football fullback, on a 1950 Bowman football card | Source

4. Marion Motley (1946–1953)

Marion Motley was one of the first two African-American men to play in the modern era of football. Alongside Bill Willis, Motley broke the color barrier in football in 1946, a whole seven months before Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play professional baseball. Aside from his impact on the social level of the game, Motley was also one of the most talented running backs in NFL history.

Motley started his rookie year with a bang. He averaged 8.2 yards per carry, an astronomical number even for the era. He went on to lead the league in rushing yards twice, and lead the league in rushing touchdowns once. He was an integral part of the Browns winning four total championships, three in the AAFC and one in the NFL. Motley retired from football in 1953 due to knee problems but returned for one season in 1955 to play linebacker for the Steelers.

Motley was selected to one Pro Bowl in his career and was a two-time First-Team All-Pro selection. He won four total championships while he played for the Browns, and currently sits sixth all-time in rushing yards for the franchise. In 1968, he was elected to the Pro Hall of Fame and is also a part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1940's Team.

3. Mike Pruitt (1976–1984)

Just a few years after Greg Pruitt joined the team, Mike Pruitt followed. He was taken seventh overall in the 1976 NFL Draft. He began his career opening holes from the fullback position and was rarely used as a ball-carrier since Greg was playing well. However, in 1979, Greg Pruitt went down with a knee injury and Mike Pruitt finally got his chance to start. He excelled, instantly becoming a household name in the NFL.

He ran for 1,294 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. He also added another 372 yards receiving and two touchdowns. In the following years, he would remain a starter, rushing for over 1,000 yards in four of his first five seasons– the one outlier being due to a shortened NFL season because of a strike.

Mike Pruitt was a dominant force in the NFL. He earned two Pro Bowl selections in 1979 and 1980. He currently sits third all-time in the Browns' franchise history for yardage with 6,540 yards, as well as third all-time in touchdowns with 47. He only trails those two categories behind Leroy Kelly and Jim Brown, both Hall of Famers. In 2003, Pruitt was inducted into the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame.

Leroy Kelly's bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Leroy Kelly's bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. | Source

2. Leroy Kelly (1964–1973)

Leroy Kelly entered the NFL with one of the largest shadows cast over him. As a rookie, he was the backup running back for the great Jim Brown, and would eventually follow in his footsteps after Brown retired. The expectations set upon him after Brown's departure were unmatched. Up until that point, Brown was the greatest football player to ever step on the field, and Kelly had to fill his shoes. In his third year, Kelly became the starter, and put any worries about his abilities to rest.

In Kelly's first year starting, he ran for 1,141 yards and a league-leading 15 touchdowns. He also led the league with 5.5 yards per carry. The next season he became the league's leading rusher with 1,205 yards, a league-leading 11 touchdowns, and a league-leading 1,487 total yards from scrimmage. His third season was the best season of his career, leading the league in rush attempts, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, yards from scrimmage, and total touchdowns. He ran for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns while averaging five yards per carry. He also amassed another 297 yards receiving and four additional receiving touchdowns.

Kelly went on after that three-year stretch to have a consistently good career before he left the NFL in 1973. During his ten years with the Browns, he was selected to six Pro Bowls and had three First-Team All-Pro selections. He won his only NFL Championship his rookie year while backing up Jim Brown. In 1968, he won the Bert Bell Award, which goes to the player of the year. In 1994, Kelly was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. To this day he sits second all-time in the Browns' franchise history in rushing yardage and rushing touchdowns. He has played the most games as a Brown from a running back position with 136 games.

American football player Jim Brown
American football player Jim Brown | Source

1. Jim Brown (1957–1965)

Jim Brown is not only the greatest running back in Cleveland Browns' history, but he's also the greatest running back to ever play the game of football. In fact, until the arrival of Tom Brady, Brown was the greatest player to ever step on a football field. To this day, Brown is the only running back in NFL history to average over 100 rushing yards per game for their entire career.

Brown was drafted sixth overall by the Browns in 1957. The Los Angeles Rams were in need of a running back with the second overall pick, but their owner turned their decision to Jon Arnett from the University of Southern California instead. The Browns wanted to select a quarterback with their pick, but their primary targets in the draft were taken, so they settled on Brown. This string of decisions led to the Browns getting the most dominant talent in NFL history.

In Brown's rookie year, he fell just short of the 1,000-yard mark, one of only two times in his career. But he rushed for a league-leading 942 yards and nine touchdowns while averaging 4.7 yards per carry. He would continue the trend of leading the league in rushing yards the following four seasons, and every other season of his career except for 1962, when he finished fourth overall. In Brown's nine-year career he led the league in rushing attempts six times, rushing yards eight times, rushing touchdowns five times, yards per game eight times, total yards from scrimmage six times, and total touchdowns five times. He dominated the competition in every single major rushing category for his entire career.

Brown also holds strong positions in the all-time lists for NFL history in rushing categories. He currently sits 11th in career rushing yardage with 12,312 yards, sixth in career rushing touchdowns with 106, fifth in yards per rushing attempt with 5.2 yards, and first in yards per game with 104.3. Brown is the only player in NFL history to average over 100 yards per game for their career. These marks are even more impressive when you take into account that Brown retired in the prime of his career.

Why Did Jim Brown Retire Early?

Jim Brown retired at the peak of his career after finishing the 1965 season leading the league in yards, touchdowns, and earning the Most Valuable Player award. In fact, 1965 was the greatest statistical season of Brown's career. Aside from football, Brown was also an actor. Before the 1966 season, Brown had a delay in shooting for one of his movies, The Dirty Dozen. The delay was going to cause Brown to be several weeks late for the team's upcoming training camp, something that owner Art Modell was not happy with. When Brown told Modell that he would be late because of the movie, Modell informed him that a $100 weekly fine would be given to Brown to ensure that a bad message wasn't sent to other players about missing camp. When the issue couldn't be worked out, Brown informed the team he would be retiring. He went on to have roles in 46 movies. If not for that disagreement between Modell and Brown, who knows how much higher his records would have soared?

Jim Brown's Career Accolades

In Jim Brown's nine-year career he was selected to nine Pro Bowls, eight First-Team All-Pro selections, he received the Bert Bell Award in 1963, and was a three-time NFL MVP. He won his only NFL Championship in 1964. Brown set the NFL record for rushing yards in a season with 1,863 yards in 1963. At that point in time, no other running back had ever broken 1,600 yards and the record stood for another ten years before it was surpassed by OJ Simpson. By comparison, Brown broke the record in only 14 games. Of the ten players who had more yards in a season than Brown, only one did so in fourteen or fewer games. Brown still holds the record for yards in a season with 104.3 yards per game.

Honorable Mentions

Ernie Green (1962–1968)

Ernie Green was unfortunate enough to have to play along with Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly. He was primarily utilized as a fullback, blocking and opening holes for lead running backs. When he did have the ball he was very successful, averaging 4.8 yards per attempt. The greatest value that Green could contribute, however, was his ability to block. Green was the main blocker for Brown when he set the NFL record for rushing yards in a season. When Brown retired unexpectedly, Green became the primary blocker for Kelly, who went on to be one of the best backs in the NFL. When Green retired in 1968, Kelly's season averages dropped between 400 and 600 yards a season until he retired. Green's fantastic play helped two Hall of Fame running backs earn their greatest achievements.

Dub Jones (1948–1955)

Dub Jones was a complementary piece to Marion Motley. He played on five championship teams in his career. Jones' stats don't jump off the page, but he was a very talented back who was used primarily as a receiving option. Jones averaged 16.8 yards per reception during his time in Cleveland, and also boasted a respectable 4.2 yards per rush. He was a pivotal piece in the Browns' early dynasty, and he was a great compliment to Motley during that time. Jones played eight seasons with the Browns and over half of them resulted in championship rings.

What NFL Team Has the Best Running Backs in NFL History?

The Cleveland Browns have the greatest running backs in NFL history. While they are second in NFL history with Hall of Famers at the running back position with four total, they have only one less and were founded 24 years later than the Bears. The Browns have the most dominant running back by far in their history, and had he not retired early, Jim Brown would have run away with records that would never have been touched. Their history has amassed a collection of versatile backs who could attack the defense from anywhere on the field. The Browns' franchise running backs embody the blue-collar attitude of Cleveland with their hard-nosed running styles and ability to get the job done. Both the city's fans and their running backs aren't afraid to get dirty to earn success.

Questions & Answers

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      • JesseUnk profile imageAUTHOR

        Jesse Unk 

        9 days ago from Ohio

        Theframjak,

        Chubb will be pushing Hillis out by season's end, i just dont like adding people midseason. When it wraps up I'll update and he will creep even higher as time goes by I'm sure! Thanks for reading! I hope you check out my other stuff as well!

      • theframjak profile image

        theframjak 

        9 days ago from East Coast

        Great article! Thank you for accurately describing the skills and attitude of Earnest Byner. He was my favorite Brown when I was a kid and loved the way he played the game. Nick Chubb should be on this list soon.

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