Ranking the Best Draft Classes in Cleveland Browns History

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The Browns had several draft classes that could be considered the best in franchise history. Read on to see which ranks as the greatest ever.

The Browns had several draft classes that could be considered the best in franchise history. Read on to see which ranks as the greatest ever.

What Years Did Cleveland Have the Best Draft Classes?

When the Browns merged into the NFL in 1950 they didn't need to reload their roster through the draft. Legendary coach Paul Brown had built a roster littered with future Hall of Famers during the franchise's four years in the All-America Football Conference, but the Browns were still granted 30 selections in the annual NFL draft in 1950. And while none of those 30 players are remembered amongst the franchise greats, there have been several other years where the Browns have made quite a splash with a draft class.

Whether it was selecting a Hall of Famer as a replacement for one of the greatest players in team history, making an unpopular selection who became a legend, or finding a superstar in the deepest depths of a draft, the Browns have seen a little bit of everything. But the best feeling for a front office comes years later when multiple players from the same draft class have become key components of the team's roster. For the Browns, that feeling has come plenty of times throughout history.

Selection Criteria for This List

In this list, I include the five greatest draft classes in Browns history and a handful of honorable mentions. The factors I used to develop this list are:

  • How many of a certain year's picks helped the Browns for multiple seasons.
  • How many late-round selections became regular contributors.
  • The success of players drafted, such as individual honors, All-Pro selections, Pro Bowl selections and Hall of Fame induction.

For the purposes of this list, only a player's time spent in Cleveland will be considered when determining the greatness of a particular draft class. For example, while the Browns selected six players in the 1956 NFL Draft who went on to play more than 100 career games, only one of them played more than 50 games in Cleveland. Therefore, you won't read about that year on this list.

5. Class of 1972

Coming off of a playoff appearance in 1971, the Browns weren’t looking for a complete overhaul in the '72 NFL Draft. The Browns owned the No. 18 pick in the first round and drafted 17 players altogether. They were spot-on with their first-round selection, and they added several other strong players in later rounds to make for a well-rounded draft class.

“Considering the caliber of the material in this draft, I’m satisfied with what we have come up with,” said Browns head coach Nick Skorich, who added he expected about a half dozen players to contribute as rookies (AP, 1972).

Prominent players selected in 1972 included:

Thom Darden

  • Round: 1st
  • Pick: 18
  • Position: Defensive back
  • Games With Browns: 128

A standout out of Sandusky (Ohio) High School, Thom Darden became an All-American at Michigan by helping the Wolverines to a pair of appearances in the Rose Bowl. Though it was expected that Cleveland would draft a linebacker in the first round of the 1972 NFL Draft, coach Nick Skorich couldn’t pass on the local talent. That was a good thing, as Darden became one of the top ball-hawking defensive backs in the NFL. He was an integral piece to Cleveland’s playoff appearance in 1980.

Darden, who cheered for the Browns as a youth, was the second straight defensive back taken with Cleveland’s first-round draft choice (Clarence Scott was the pick in 1971). He was motivated to become a starter right away and made the most of his opportunities leading up to the season.

“I’m not going to rest on my laurels that I was picked in the first round,” Darden said after the draft’s first day. “I’m going to work hard. I want to become a starter as a rookie. That’s my goal” (Kozloski, 1972).

As a rookie, he started all 14 games at strong safety and eventually played in 128 games in his career (Darden was slotted in at free safety after his first season). Darden stayed on the field until 1981, and he established franchise records with 45 interceptions that he returned for a combined 820 yards. His best season was in 1978 when he made his lone Pro Bowl after snaring 10 interceptions to lead the league.

Clifford Brooks

  • Round: 2nd
  • Pick: 45
  • Position: Defensive back
  • Games With Browns: 41

Clifford Brooks did not enjoy a lengthy career in the NFL, but he was a regular contributor for the Browns throughout his first three seasons, making him a worthwhile draft pick. He played every game his rookie season, including a playoff matchup, and started another six over the next two seasons. In total, he missed just one game with the Browns.

Skorich felt the combination of Brooks and Darden would give the Browns a quick improvement in the secondary, and he was pleased to be able to draft both players. It's possible Brooks fell in the draft due to playing for a small school (Tennessee State) and having missed a significant amount of playing time in college with an unusual injury that nearly paralyzed him.

“No one really knew what was wrong,” Brooks said. “But I wasn’t walking for a while and hurt all over. . . . Now, I feel very fine. It pleases me a great deal to be with Cleveland” (Zitrin, 1972).

Mel Long

  • Round: 11th
  • Pick: 278
  • Position: Defensive lineman
  • Games With Browns: 42

Mel Long did two things very well while playing college football for the University of Toledo—winning and posting tremendous individual statistics. In spite of helping the Rockets to a 35–0 record over three seasons and bringing home a pair of All-America honors, Long wasn't drafted until the 11th round of the 1972 NFL Draft. Much of that likely had to do with his size—at 6’1”, and 230 pounds, Long wouldn't find much success as a defensive tackle in the NFL.

Skorich, however, could see that Long could be successful at a different position. He took the 1971 Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year and transformed him into a linebacker and special teams player. Long's discipline from a stint in the military also had broad appeal.

“[W]e feel he has the speed and quickness to make the adjustment,” Skorich said. “This is the kind of athlete who should be a big help on specialty teams. And he seems to be the type of young man you’d like to have on the squad" (AP, 1972).

Long played three seasons in Cleveland, primarily on special teams. He returned six punts in that time. He went into business following his 42-game NFL career.

Brian Sipe

  • Round: 13th
  • Pick: 330
  • Position: Quarterback
  • Games With Browns: 125

There was a little confusion after the Browns selected San Diego State quarterback Brian Sipe in the 13th round of the 1972 NFL Draft. Cleveland already had multiple established quarterbacks, and despite rewriting the record books at SDSU, Sipe wasn't the most well-known quarterback in the draft. In fact, as the 12th quarterback selected, Sipe was such an afterthought that the Associated Press erroneously reported the Browns as selecting “Brian Snipe” (AP, 1972). In the end, however, Sipe was the only quarterback from his draft class to make a Pro Bowl.

Skorich liked that Sipe played for a pass-oriented offense in college and said the team would, “bring him along behind the others and see what he can do” (AP, 1972). That meant starting Sipe as the fourth-string option and working his way forward. For two seasons, Sipe never saw the field, but then he played in 10 games in 1974. Two years later, he became entrenched as the starter and remained in that position until 1983.

Sipe became one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the Browns. He led the "Kardiac Kids" to the playoffs in 1980 and was named the league's MVP that season after setting still-standing franchise records with 4,132 yards and 30 touchdowns on 337 completions. Sipe also holds the team's career records with 1,944 completions, 3,439 attempts and 23,713 yards.

Former Browns linebacker Clay Matthews continues to be remembered as one of the greatest players in franchise history. He is seen above getting inducted into the team's Ring of Honor in 2019.

Former Browns linebacker Clay Matthews continues to be remembered as one of the greatest players in franchise history. He is seen above getting inducted into the team's Ring of Honor in 2019.

4. Class of 1978

Not everyone was convinced the Browns had made the best decisions with their pair of first-round picks in the 1978 NFL Draft. After taking a linebacker and a wide receiver/return man, some criticized the Browns for not improving on areas that were considered weaker. But from the top team officials down to the scouting department, the picks were considered a success—and eventually, fans would come to realize just how well the Browns did that spring.

"I'm pleased, but I've been pleased before," said Browns owner Art Modell after the first day of the draft. "I'm excited about what we've done . . . more so than I've been in a long time. . . . Plus, we've accomplished what we set out to do, and that is to take the best athlete, but at the same time, we've filled some needs" (Yannucci, 1978).

Little did he know what was actually to come, as the first-round selections—linebacker Clay Matthews and tight end Ozzie Newsome—became two of the greatest Browns draft picks of all-time.

Clay Matthews

  • Round: 1st
  • Pick: 12
  • Position: Linebacker
  • Games With Browns: 232

Because the Browns didn't have a serious need for a linebacker, many were surprised when the team selected Clay Matthews with the 12th pick in the draft. Rated as one of the best players in the draft, the USC standout was snatched up by the Browns and promptly played more games with the team than any other defensive player in franchise history.

"We definitely are going to switch Matthews from middle linebacker to probably the left side, and he will play," said coach Sam Rutigliano, who planned to team Matthews with 1977 first-round draft pick Robert Jackson. "We are not going to hide behind the security blanket of experience" (Yannucci, 1978).

He played 15 games as a rookie and became a regular starter in 1979. Matthews didn't relinquish that role until he left Cleveland after the 1993 season. He helped anchor a defense that made seven postseason appearances during his career.

Ozzie Newsome

  • Round: 1st
  • Pick: 23
  • Position: Tight end
  • Games With Browns: 198

Ozzie Newsome was drafted primarily to fill Cleveland's open position at return man. As a wide receiver at the University of Alabama, Newsome also excelled in the return game in college. The Browns, however, recognized his above-average blocking abilities and sure hands. They made quick plans to make him a tight end.

"He's smart and he's got the finest hands of any receiver in collegiate football this year," said Mike Nixon, Cleveland's chief scout. "He can catch the ball any place, he's flexible, and he's a tough kid. He's also a fine blocker and he can run back punts very well. He's just a fine football player" (AP, 1978).

The position switch was one of the best decisions Cleveland's executives and coaches ever concocted, as he became one of the best tight ends in the league. Newsome spent his entire career with the Browns and missed just three games throughout 13 seasons. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999 after catching 662 passes for 7,980 yards and 47 touchdowns while averaging at least 10 yards per catch in all but one season.

Johnny Evans

  • Round: 2nd
  • Pick: 39
  • Position: Punter
  • Games With Browns: 48

The Browns originally owned the No. 20 pick in the 1978 NFL Draft but traded down to the No. 23 pick to select Newsome. Part of the strategy involved the assumption that the Rams were going to take Johnny Evans with their newly acquired pick at No. 20. Los Angeles decided to draft running back Elvis Peacock instead, so not only did the Browns win the gamble on waiting for a few selections to get Newsome, but they also ended up with Evans, who Cleveland selected in the second round. Evans was the primary punter and a quarterback at NC State, and the Browns liked the versatility he would bring to the team.

"We took him primarily as a punter and, hopefully, as a backup quarterback," Nixon said of Evans, who was the 1977 Peach Bowl Most Valuable Player. "In my opinion, he was the best punter I've seen in college ball since Ray Guy" (AP, 1978).

Evans spent just three seasons with the Browns before heading to the Canadian Football League, but he played well during that time. He averaged 39.5 yards per punt during 48 games with the Browns.

3. Class of 1967

The Browns did not draft any superstars in 1967, but by selecting numerous players who stayed with the team in regular roles for many years, the '67 draft class helped the team make several playoff appearances. Cleveland selected seven players during the draft who played in at least 55 games with the franchise, and the Browns made the postseason in five of the next six following seasons.

That year's draft was the first common draft that saw both teams from the NFL and the AFL select players at the same event. By 1970, the leagues were merged into one.

Bob Matheson

  • Round: 1st
  • Pick: 18
  • Position: Linebacker
  • Games With Browns: 55

Going into the 1967 NFL Draft, the Browns needed a star linebacker, and they addressed the need right away by selecting Bob Matheson in the opening round. As a standout at Duke, Matheson was a coveted prospect and enjoyed a 13-year career in the NFL, with his first four seasons spent in Cleveland. He appeared in all but one game, snaring four interceptions and recovering five fumbles.

Matheson was traded to the Dolphins following the 1970 season and the Browns received a second-round pick in the '72 draft. Cleveland spent that pick on Crimson Tide defensive end Lester Sims, who never played a snap in the NFL. Matheson went on to win two Super Bowls with the Dolphins, including in 1972 when Miami defeated Cleveland in the postseason.

Don Cockroft

  • Round: 3rd
  • Pick: 55
  • Position: Kicker
  • Games With Browns: 188

Though Don Cockroft didn't play as a rookie after being taken in the third round of the draft out of Adams State, he took over the kicking and punting duties in 1968 and didn't miss a game until he retired after the '80 season. Cockroft is the third all-time leading scorer in franchise history, and he was also the team's punter through 1976—leaving him among the last players to specialize in both talents. Cockroft led the NFL in field goal percentage three times, and he kicked in every extra-point attempt in a season three times (including a league-best 45 in 1969). The longest made field goal of his career came in 1972 at 57 yards.

Joe Taffoni

  • Round: 4th
  • Pick: 98
  • Position: Defensive tackle
  • Games With Browns: 55

Another strong choice by the Browns in 1967 came in the form of defensive lineman Joe Taffoni. Cleveland opted to move him to the offensive line where he played primarily as a guard and tackle. He played in every game as a rookie and only missed one game during the next two seasons. By 1970, he became the starting right tackle, but after he was demoted to a backup role in training camp the next season, he walked away from the team. Taffoni resurfaced in 1972 and '73, starting 23 games for the Giants.

John Demarie

  • Round: 6th
  • Pick: 152
  • Position: Offensive guard
  • Games With Browns: 123

Cleveland acquired an even better offensive lineman in the sixth round when the Browns took John Demarie from LSU. Demarie started five of 14 games as a rookie. He missed starting in just one game throughout the next six seasons, spending time at left and right guard. Demarie is remembered as one of the better blockers in franchise history. In total, he missed just three of 126 games with the Browns and appeared in seven playoff matchups.

Jim Copeland

  • Round: 10th
  • Pick: 255
  • Position: Center
  • Games With Browns: 81

Even more help for the offensive line came in the 10th round when the Browns selected Jim Copeland from UVA. Copeland spent his entire career with Cleveland, playing in every game his rookie season and 81 in total before retiring after the 1974 season. He only started nine times, but he also appeared in six postseason games for the Browns.

Billy Andrews

  • Round: 13th
  • Pick: 333
  • Position: Linebacker
  • Games With Browns: 100

It's not often that a player selected beyond the 300th selection turns into much of a contributor, but the Browns nailed two late selections in 1967. The first was Billy Andrews, a linebacker from Southeastern Louisiana who was taken with the 333rd pick. Not only did Andrews break into the starting lineup for a handful of games as a rookie, but he continued to play a regular role for the Browns until 1974. He had six career interceptions, and he scored the only touchdown of his career against the Jets during the first-ever Monday Night Football game in 1970. Andrews finished his career with one season with San Diego and two with Kansas City.

Ben Davis

  • Round: 17th
  • Pick: 439
  • Position: Wide receiver
  • Games With Browns: 75

The second promising late-rounder the Browns captured in 1967 was Ben Davis, a wide receiver from tiny Defiance College who blossomed into a superior defender. After moving to defensive back, Davis broke out during his sophomore season, snaring eight interceptions and returning them for a league-high 162 yards. In his seven seasons with Cleveland, Davis grabbed 17 interceptions and recovered five fumbles. He closed his career with three seasons with the Lions.

Former Cleveland wide receiver Paul Warfield is one of two Hall of Famers the franchise selected in the 1964 NFL Draft.

Former Cleveland wide receiver Paul Warfield is one of two Hall of Famers the franchise selected in the 1964 NFL Draft.

2. Class of 1964

A pair of future Hall of Famers were selected by Browns during the 1964 NFL Draft, and they proved to be vital to the team's victory in that year's league championship. They then continued to help the Browns stay a contender for the rest of the decade.

Paul Warfield

  • Round: 1st
  • Pick: 11
  • Position: Defensive back
  • Games With Browns: 97

Paul Warfield was a star at Ohio State, but when the Browns made him their first pick in the draft, they had no idea what type of player he would become. Warfield played as a running back and defensive back in college, and Cleveland intended to play him on the defensive side of the ball.

"We are thinking of him primarily as a defensive back," said head coach Blanton Collier. "We feel we need more speed there. He could play either the cornerback or at safety" (AP, 1964).

As training camp wore on, however, it became clear that Warfield would be more successful as a wide receiver, and the story of one of the greatest Browns wide receivers of all time was born. Warfield gained nearly 1,000 yards as a rookie, and in his eight seasons with the Browns, he caught 271 passes for 5,210 yards and had 52 touchdowns, which ranks as third most in team history. Warfield excelled in the playoffs, snaring 24 passes for 404 yards in seven postseason games. Warfield was a three-time All-Pro and one-time Pro Bowl selection. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1983.

Leroy Kelly

  • Round: 8th
  • Pick: 110
  • Position: Running back
  • Games With Browns: 136

Approaching the 1964 season, Cleveland was home to the greatest running back in the NFL, so finding a new star for the position wasn't much of a priority. Leroy Kelly came in and made his mark anyway, which was a good thing because the legendary Jim Brown retired after the 1965 season. The Morgan State player didn't see much action in his first two seasons, but he burst onto the scene once he picked up the starting job. In 1967 and '68, he led the NFL in rushing attempts and yardage, and he was the league's touchdown leader from 1966 to '68.

Kelly's career ended after 10 seasons, during which he piled up 7,274 rushing yards and 74 touchdowns on 1,727 carries. He had an additional 2,281 yards and 13 touchdowns on 190 receptions. Kelly was an All-Pro three times and selected to six straight Pro Bowls from 1966 to '71. He also picked up the Bert Bell Award in 1968, was named to the NFL 1960s All-Decade Team and was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1994.

Sid Williams

  • Round: 16th
  • Pick: 222
  • Position: Linebacker
  • Games With Browns: 41

Despite his status as a very late pick, Sid Williams was a valuable asset for the Browns for the first three seasons of his career. Williams played every game as a rookie and then moved into a starting role for 10 games the following year. He missed just one game during his third season, but a contract dispute with the Browns led him to be traded to the Giants. Cleveland never saw the fruits of its return as the Giants released Williams within a week and the Browns returned the draft choice. Williams spent three more years in the NFL—one each with Washington, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. His only career interception and fumble recovery came with the Browns.

1. Class of 1957

The 1957 NFL Draft was split into two sessions, and the Browns did damage in each. The first four rounds of the draft were held on Nov. 26, 1956, and the final 26 rounds took place on Jan. 31, '57. Cleveland ultimately selected three Hall of Famers during the draft, though defensive end Henry Jordan was traded to the Packers two years later. (It was under Vince Lombardi in Green Bay that built his status as an NFL legend.) But the two Hall of Famers who stayed in Cleveland were instrumental in the Browns winning the 1964 NFL championship and making several other playoff appearances.

Jim Brown

  • Round: 1st
  • Pick: 6
  • Position: Fullback
  • Games With Browns: 118

It was time for a Hall of Fame fullback to pass the torch, and little did the Browns know, the exchange would go right to another legend. Marion Motley, a bruising fullback known as one of the best in league history, saw his career end in 1953. (He had an unsuccessful attempt at a comeback in 1955.) The Browns selected Jim Brown from Syracuse in 1957 as a potential long-term replacement. It turned out that Brown was an even better player.

Brown was an instant hit as he won both the 1957 NFL Rookie of the Year and MVP awards. He repeated MVP honors in 1958 and again in '65. Brown led the league in rushing yards in eight of his nine seasons, and he was named an All-Pro and selected to the Pro Bowl every year he played. He accumulated 12,312 yards and 106 touchdowns on 2,359 rushing attempts to establish franchise records that have yet to be broken. Brown was included on the NFL 1960s All-Decade Team and earned enshrinement into the Hall of Fame in '71.

Milt Plum

  • Round: 2nd
  • Pick: 17
  • Position: Quarterback
  • Games With Browns: 59

After taking over as the starting quarterback as a rookie, Milt Plum engineered four straight winning seasons with the Browns. In the last three of those seasons, he was the NFL's leader in completion percentage and held a 2:3:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. His accuracy allowed the Browns to run a balanced offense with Plum's passing and Jim Brown's rushing. During Plum's career with the Browns, he completed 627 of 1,083 passes for 8,914 yards, 66 touchdowns and 39 interceptions. He was involved in a six-player trade with the Lions following the 1961 season, and he spent six seasons there before finishing with single seasons for the Rams and Giants.

Gene Hickerson

  • Round: 7th
  • Pick: 78
  • Position: Offensive guard
  • Games With Browns: 202

Gene Hickerson blocked for numerous Hall of Fame running backs during his career with the Browns, paving the way for legends like Jim Brown, Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Kelly. Hickerson helped the Browns make the postseason eight times in his 15-year career. Along the way, he picked up three All-Pro selections and six Pro Bowl selections. Hickerson played in 165 straight games for the Browns, a record at the time of his retirement. He was named a member of the NFL 1960s All-Decade Team and was enshrined into the Hall of Fame in 2007.

Baker Mayfield (left) and Denzel Ward speak after both being selected by the Browns in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft.

Baker Mayfield (left) and Denzel Ward speak after both being selected by the Browns in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft.

Honorable Mentions

Here are some other draft classes that were significant but fell just outside of the top five.

Class of 1971

The 1971 draft produced one of the best defensive backs in Browns history in first-round pick Clarence Scott—who was taken at No. 14 and played 13 seasons with the Browns and intercepted 39 passes. An even better selection, however, came in the sixth round, when Cleveland picked offensive lineman Doug Dieken with the 142nd pick. Dieken became next in a long line of legendary left tackles for the Browns. He started every game from 1972 to '84 and played in 203 games in Cleveland. Additionally, the Browns selected linebacker Charlie Hall in the third round (No. 68). He went on to start every game for Cleveland from 1972 to '80.

Class of 1991

Eric Turner was the greatest prize the Browns received from the 1991 NFL Draft. And while his production wasn't quite what a team would expect from the No. 2 pick, Turner did start 60 of 63 games with the Browns and intercepted 17 passes over five seasons (including a league-best nine in 1994, when he was named a Pro Bowler and All-Pro). The next-best player Cleveland picked was wide receiver Michael Jackson, who was taken in the sixth round (No. 141). He had three seasons with at least 700 receiving yards and continued to be a regular receiver for the Ravens after the Browns left Cleveland for Baltimore following the 1995 season.

Defensive lineman Pio Sagapolutele was a regular for five seasons for the Browns, playing in 63 games after being selected in the fourth round (No. 85). James Jones, a defensive tackle taken in the third round (No. 57), played in every game for four seasons, while offensive guard Ed King, who was taken in the second round (No. 29), played each game in his first two seasons.

Class of 2018

Though the full potential of the 2018 draft class has yet to be determined, the Browns are getting regular contributions from numerous players picked that year. Starting quarterback Baker Mayfield (No. 1), ball-hawking cornerback Denzel Ward (No. 4) and Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb (No. 35) have all seen plenty of action for the Browns so far.

First-year Cleveland general manager Andrew Berry speaks during the 2020 NFL Combine in Indianapolis. He is hopeful his first draft with the Browns will be remembered as a good one.

First-year Cleveland general manager Andrew Berry speaks during the 2020 NFL Combine in Indianapolis. He is hopeful his first draft with the Browns will be remembered as a good one.

Future Cleveland Drafts

In 2021, the 86th annual NFL draft will be held in Cleveland. The Browns will surely be looking to add another strong class that year, rather than add to the list of the worst draft classes in franchise history.

Works Cited

Associated Press. “Warfield First Draft Choice Of Browns, Discusses Terms.” The Marion Star. pp. 10. Dec. 3, 1963. Retrieved from Newspapers.com on March 17, 2020.

Associated Press. “Skorich satisfied with his grabs.” The Daily Reporter. pp. B2. February 3, 1972. Retrieved from Newspapers.com on March 3, 2020.

Associated Press. "Browns solidify weak spots." The Newark Advocate. pp. 16. February 3, 1978. Retrieved from Newspapers.com on March 16, 2020.

Kozloski, H. “Browns Pin Hopes on Darden.” Mansfield News-Journal. pp. 23. February 2, 1972. Retrieved from Newspapers.com on March 4, 2020.

Yannucci, R. "Modell thinks Browns reached draft goals." Akron Beacon-Journal. pp. F1-F8. May 3, 1978. Retrieved from Newspapers.com on March 7, 2020.

Yannucci, R. "Linebacker shift possible." Akron Beacon-Journal. pp. F1. May 3, 1978. Retrieved from Newspapers.com on March 7, 2020.

Zitrin, R. “Too Fast For Words!” Akron Beacon-Journal. pp. C1. February 2, 1972. Retrieved from Newspapers.com on March 3, 2020.