Yesterday we looked at the skill position players featured in Gil Brandt’s recent series of articles ranking the greatest players of all time at their respective positions. Today we continue along with the offensive line. There are Browns at all three position-groups and in fact this unit is very well represented by prominent orange helmets. It also contains the one position at which we have our only active member.
Offensive Guards - Joe DeLamielleure (#5) & Gene Hickerson (#18)
These were the names I immediately associated with the position before looking at the rankings, and not really surprised/upset with where they were respectively positioned. Joe DeLamielleure (pronounced: “də-LAHM-ə-LOHR”) is situated between Gene Upshaw and Mike Munchak at #5, and that is tremendously impressive company to be keeping. To be fair, the majority of DeLamielleure’s key contribution to the league came as a member of the Buffalo Bills, blasting holes open for O.J. Simpson.
He was drafted by Buffalo with the 26th pick of the 1973 draft. He would play for seven seasons there before joining the Browns in 1980. He did play for us for 5 years though and was part of the “Kardiac Kids” team that almost went all the way. He then returned to Buffalo to close out his career, playing one final season in 1985.
Throughout his thirteen seasons, DeLamielleure was elected to six Pro Bowls and three first-team All-pro selections (including one apiece with Cleveland in 1980). He started 175 of a possible 185 games between Cleveland and Buffalo. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003.
The other name of course was ALL Cleveland, and that’s #18 Gene Hickerson. While DeLamielleure got to block for The Juice, Hickerson got to block for the GOAT. He appears on this list sandwiched between Russ Grimm (#17) and Jim Tyrer (#19).
He played 15 seasons for the Browns, after having been drafted the same year as Jim Brown (1957) only in the seventh round, which was still pick 78 (they had 30 rounds back then). He was used as a “messenger guard” by coach Paul Brown, as in he was used to send in the offensive plays. Brown wasn’t the only hall-of-famer Hickerson would get to block for, as Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Kelly also occupied the Browns’ backfield during those years.
Hickerson was voted to six Pro Bowls, and named 1st-team All-Pro three times. He was part of the 1964 championship squad, and was also named to the 1960’s All Decade Team. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.
Centers - Frank Gatksi (#8) & Alex Mack (#13)
Frank Gatski should be the first name that you think of when you think ‘all-time-great Browns Center’. A little surprised to see Alex Mack though, however I guess not terribly so. Mack of course is now a member of the Atlanta Falcons, and helped anchor their line to ALMOST their first Super Bowl victory in 2016.
The Browns drafted Mack (after a series of trades) with the twenty-first pick in the 2009 draft. He would be immediately installed as the starter and instantly was a stabilizing force. He did not miss a single snap until week seven of the 2014 campaign. He’s a four-time Pro Bowler and three-time 2nd-team All Pro (including 2013 with the Browns). He signed with Atlanta following the 2015 season and is expected to be their starting center for the foreseeable future.
Gatski was nicknamed “Gunner" for his speed and strength as an offensive lineman. He was one of the original Browns, joining the team in 1946 (our birthyear) and playing for 12 seasons. Along with being excellent and fortifying the Browns offensive line during their heyday, he was also incredibly durable. He never missed a game or practice at any level of competition - High School, College, or Pro. He blocked for the great Otto Graham and Marion Motley, and was a big part of every championship success we had in the 40’s and 50’s.
He was a three-time 1st-team All-pro, and won seven league titles as a Brown. In 1956, he was traded to the Detroit Lions, and won an EIGHTH championship. He retired afterward, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall Of Fame in 1985.
Offensive Tackles - Lou Groza (#19), Mike McCormack (#8) & Joe Thomas (#7)
This group has the most Browns’ saturation of any thus far, and impressively so considering Brandt only went 20 deep. I’m a little surprised to see Lou “The Toe” Groza there at #19, but then that speaks to what an absolute legend Groza is to Browns’ history.
More on him momentarily, but first Mike McCormack played for Cleveland from the mid-50’s to early 60’s, spanning the last great years of the original Browns as well as paving the way for Jim Brown during his early years. He played Right Tackle, and originally started his career as a member of the New York Yanks (yep, they were a thing) in 1951.
He joined the Browns in 1954 as part of a 15-player trade while he was in the U.S. Army. He would be a fixture a right tackle all the way until 1962, during which time he made six pro bowls. He was a member of two (2) NFL championship teams, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1984.
Seriously, if you don’t know who Lou Groza is, study up. He’s about as iconic a figure in early Browns’ lore as they come. That’s because not only was he a tremendous offensive tackle, but was also the Browns Place Kicker for TWENTY-ONE seasons. That’s right, Groza was another original Brown from 1946, and played all the way until 1967. He became the starting Left Tackle his second season and held that job until 1960, when age and injury forced him into kicker-only status for the remainder of his career.
He got to block for all the great Browns, including Jim Brown for his first two seasons. As a tackle, Groza was a first-team All-pro four times, and was elected to nine pro bowls. Clearly, he was more than “just” a kicker. He was a key figure in all eight of Cleveland’s championships from 1946 to 1964 (interestingly enough, the exact range of the Baby Boomers).
Over twenty-one amazing seasons, he amassed 1,608 career points. That was a record for a long time, of course all earned during an era when far fewer games were played. He remains the Browns’ all time leading scorer, and his #76 has been retired by the team. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall Of Fame in 1974.
1950 was the first year the Browns played football in the NFL, and they made it to the NFL championship game against the Los Angeles Rams, who had just moved to L.A. from Cleveland in 1946, the same year the Browns were formed. Cleveland trailed the Rams 28-27 late in the fourth quarter, when Groza kicked a 16 yard field goal to give Cleveland their first NFL title and fifth total championship in club history.
Last but certainly not least...
Since the Browns have returned to the NFL in 1999, there have not been very many bright spots for the organization. Over the last ten seasons, an exception has been the sensational, future Hall Of Famer Joe Thomas. He appears on this list quite respectably at #7, just ahead of McCormack and just after Forrest Gregg. I’d venture to guess he’ll be up higher on Gil’s list by the time his career’s done. He’s already the top LT of all time on my list, but I’m quite heavily (and enthusiastically) biased.
The Browns drafted Thomas #3 overall in the 2007 (click on that link - it’s to the DBN thread of that day’s events). While so many draft picks high and low have turned out to be duds (for a variety of reasons) Joe has been the big exception. In fact he’s been exceptional from the moment he stepped onto the field. He was the day one starter at one of the most important positions in the game and has never relinquished that role.
Cleveland has been mostly terrible over that time but Thomas has remained faithful, protecting the blindside of bad QB’s year in and year out. This last winter he was named to his tenth pro bowl in 10 seasons, he has also been a 1st-team All-Pro six times.
When he retires - a day I hope is still far off into the future, his number 73 will retire with him, no doubt. He is right at the top of the heap with Otto Graham, Jim Brown, and Lou Groza with respect to greatest-Cleveland-Browns-ever, and that is a tremendous accomplishment regardless how awful the team has been throughout his career. It would sure be wonderful if we could get this thing turned around soon so that big Joe could get some winning in before the sun sets. I have a decent feeling about that.
Hope you enjoyed this review of Gil Brandt’s offensive line all-time evaluations. Let us know if you agree or disagree with these rankings in the comments section below.