Who Are the Greatest Browns Linebackers of All Time?
Linebackers are the heartbeat of a team’s defense, so it pays dividends to have a strong stable at this position. Even though the Browns have never had a linebacker represent them in the 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 ’80s, the Browns have been strong at the linebacker position.
To generate a list of the five greatest Browns linebackers of all time, I considered these criteria:
- 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 the Browns, percentage of career with the 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 Giants, his 2.5 sacks over two seasons in Cleveland won’t make the cut here.
5. Chip Banks
- Seasons With the 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)
A Southern Cal All-American, Chip Banks burst onto the scene as a rookie after being selected 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 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 he 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 AFC Central Division titles in 1985 and ’86. With Cleveland, he recorded 27.5 sacks, recovered six fumbles and intercepted five passes. His best postseason game came against the Jets in 1986, when he had 1.5 sacks in a thrilling 23–20 overtime victory.
But as much as he was a game changer, he also brought off-the-field issues, including two contract holdouts with the Browns. Despite his superstar status, Cleveland made the decision to part ways him after the 1987 season, sending him to Chargers in a trade that also involved swapping draft picks. The primary return for Banks turned out to be rookie linebacker Mike Junkin—who turned out to be one of Cleveland’s worst draft picks of all time.
4. Galen Fiss
- Seasons With the Browns: 1956–66
- Playoff Appearances: 1957–58, 1964–65
- All-Pro: 1962
- Pro Bowl: 1962–63
Even though Galen Fiss was drafted by the Browns in 1953, he didn’t make his debut until ’56. 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 one pass in nine of his first 10 seasons.
Fiss is well-remembered for his play during the 1964 NFL championship game against the Colts. The Browns were heavy underdogs in the game, but they 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 the Browns: 1960–72
- Playoff Appearances: 1964–65, 1967–69, 1971–72
- Pro Bowl: 1964–65, 1969–70
Jim Houston was very familiar with a couple of things about football—winning and playing at many different positions on the field. At Ohio State he had played both offensively and defensively, and he was brought to the 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 three 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 nine postseason games and was 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 Colts. By winning that title, he achieved a rare feat: winning a state championship (Massillon Washington High School, ’53), a college national championship (Ohio State, ’57) and a professional championship in the same state.
2. Walt Michaels
- Seasons With the Browns: 1952–61
- Playoff Appearances: 1952–55, 1957–58
- Pro Bowl: 1955–59
When the Browns gave Walt Michaels a second chance, he did not disappoint. After drafting him in 1951, the Browns traded him to the Packers before the season started. He moved into a starting role with the Packers, but he was sent back to Cleveland for the 1952 season—and that’s when he settled in long-term on the right side to become one of the best linebackers ever in franchise history. A reliable starter who missed just two games during his Browns career, 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 two for touchdowns) and recovered eight fumbles to help the Browns advance to six 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 Lions, and in 1955, he also had an interception when the Browns defeated the Rams.
1. Clay Matthews Jr.
- Seasons With the Browns: 1978–93
- Playoff Appearances: 1980, ’82, 1985–89
- All-Pro: 1984
- Pro Bowl: 1985, 1987–89
- Awards: Browns Ring of Honor
When the Browns opted to draft 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 of 232 NFL games over 16 seasons in Cleveland, firmly establishing himself as the greatest linebacker in Browns history.
With the Browns, Matthews recorded 62 sacks (even though none from his first five seasons were counted in official statistics), and he was a force from the right side with 1,430 tackles, 24 forced fumbles and 14 interceptions. He helped the team advance to the postseason seven times, and he 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 Bills quarterback Jim Kelly with three seconds to play. The game-sealing interception on the one-yard line secured a 34–30 win.
Matthews has been a Hall of Fame modern-era semifinalist four times. If he were to gain induction, he would join his brother, Bruce, who was a standout offensive lineman for the Oilers in Canton. Clay Jr. and Bruce were also the first set of brothers to play on the same team in a Pro Bowl, which they did 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, as well. That makes the Matthews family one of only three in NFL history to have three generations of players.
The following players 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 Vince Costello’s football career. He came to the Browns in 1956, but he 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 Giants after the 1966 season. He had 18 regular-season interceptions with the Browns—including seven in 1963—but his biggest play came during the ’64 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, Mike Johnson played a key role on several playoff teams for the Browns in the late 1980s. He had at least 100 tackles in five of the six seasons between 1988 and ’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 Lions after that, but he finished his Cleveland tenure with 20 forced fumbles, 11 sacks and 10 interceptions.
Tony Adamle (1947–51, ’54)
Tony Adamle did not have a conventional career with the 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 team win a trio of championships in the All-America Football Conference. When Cleveland merged into the NFL in 1950, Adamle focused entirely on defense and made back-to-back Pro Bowls. Despite being in the prime of his career, he 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 Browns Linebackers?
Following the 2019 season, two of the starting linebackers for the Browns switched teams. Joe Schobert left for the Jaguars, and Christian Kirksey—who only played two games in 2019 due to a torn pectoral muscle—signed with the Packers.
That leaves 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 three games over the past three seasons and recorded at least 100 tackles every year. In the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft, Cleveland selected Jacob Phillips from LSU.