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The best player to wear No. 21 in Browns history

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Running back Eric Metcalf thrilled fans and terrorized defenses whenever he had the ball in his hands.

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Eric Metcalf rushes Photo by Ken Levine/Getty Images

The Cleveland Browns offense fell into a general malaise during and after the 1988 season.

Even though the Browns made the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season that year, the offense slipped from an average of more than 24 points a game the previous two seasons to 19 points a game.

Quarterback Bernie Kosar missed seven games with a variety of injuries that would mark the beginning of gradual decline that he never recovered from.

Running back Kevin Mack also dealt with injuries and averaged just 3.9 yards per carry while missing five games.

Following the season, the Browns inexplicably traded running back Earnest Byner to the Washington Redskins, despite Byner’s penchant for coming up big in the playoffs and his role as the spiritual heart of the offense.

And while the wide receiving group of Webster Slaughter, Reggie Langhorne and Brian Brennan were still in their prime, the offense needed some kind of jolt.

That burst of energy arrived in the first round of the 1989 NFL Draft in the form of running back Eric Metcalf from the University of Texas.

While he was listed as a running back, Metcalf was the type of offensive weapon that gave defensive coordinators fits and could turn a play or a kick return into a touchdown in an instant.

During his six seasons with the Browns, Metcalf scored 11 rushing touchdowns, 15 receiving touchdowns and added seven touchdowns on kick returns.

Metcalf also excelled at the long jump in college, and he brought those skills to the football field, as he said in Jonathan Knight’s 2006 book, Sundays in the Pound:

“To be a better long-jumper, you definitely have to have body control. I think that has carried over to football. When I’m running the football, I can stop and cut without turning my body. I can control my body without thinking.”

Metcalf put those skills on display numerous times with the Browns, with memorable performances that included:

  • A two-touchdown game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1989, where he totaled 233 all-purpose yards
  • A 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the 1990 playoff win against the Buffalo Bills
  • A four-touchdown day in a win against the Los Angeles Raiders in 1992, including three on pass receptions as part of a five-reception, 177-yard effort
  • Two touchdowns on punt returns in a win against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1993.

Metcalf would make the Pro Bowl following the 1993 and 1994 seasons, and be a First Team All-Pro selection as well in 1993.

In some ways Metcalf was a player before his time and head coach Bill Belichick never knew how best to use Metcalf’s skills. (Browns fans from the early 1990s still have nightmares of “Metcalf up the middle.”)

Following the 1994 season, Belichick traded Metcalf and Cleveland’s No. 1 pick in the 1995 NFL Draft to the Atlanta Falcons in exchange for Atlanta’s first-round selection, which was the No. 10 overall pick, with the intention of selecting tight end Kyle Brady out of Penn State.

But the New York Jets beat Belichick to Brady by selecting him at No. 9. Rather than pivot and select a player like future Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp, future three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Hugh Douglas, future Hall of Fame safety Ty Law or future Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks, Belichick panicked and sent the No. 10 overall selection to the San Francisco 49ers for their first-round selection, which was No. 30 overall.

With that pick, Belichick selected linebacker Craig Powell, whose NFL career lasted all of 14 games.

So, to summarize, Belichick turned one of the best all-around offensive players in NFL history into a crappy linebacker from Ohio State. But that is a story for another day.

During his six seasons with the Browns, Metcalf rushed for 2,229 yards (ranking No. 14 on the franchise’s all-time list); had 297 receptions (No. 10 on the all-time list) for 2,732 yards; had 1,341 yards in punt returns (No. 4 on the all-time list) and five punt returns for a touchdown (tops in team history); and 2,806 yards on kickoff returns and two kickoff returns for touchdowns, both third-best in franchise history.

Metcalf would play seven more years with six different teams after leaving the Browns, and retired with 17,230 all-purpose yards, 16th-most in league history, and 10 punt returns for touchdowns, ranking No. 2 in NFL history.

He also earns the title as the best Browns player to wear No. 21 in franchise history.

Cincinnati Bengals v Cleveland Browns Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

(Very) honorable mention: Cornerback Denzel Ward, who despite missing four games in each of his first two seasons due to injuries has become one of the league’s best cover corners, as Pro Football Focus points out:

Cleveland’s defensive backs have not been put in the best position to succeed in recent years, despite some significant draft capital thrown at the secondary. However, Denzel Ward has still shown some very impressive play. In the NFL, Ward has allowed a 64.9 passer rating when targeted, with fewer than 50% of the passes thrown his way being caught. He has been one of the better man-cover corners in the league and had four games last season with fewer than 20 receiving yards allowed.

Cincinnati Bengals v Cleveland Browns Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Honorable mention: Safety Brodney Pool, a second-round draft pick in the 2005 NFL Draft who made 49 starts and had 11 interceptions in five years with the Browns from 2005 through 2008.

Cornerback Oliver Davis, a fourth-round selection in the 1977 NFL Draft from Tennessee Tech. Davis started 43 games from 1977 through 1980 and posted 11 interceptions, six of which came in 1978. He finished out his career with the Cincinnati Bengals, which included a trip to Super Bowl XVI.

Poll

Who was the best player to wear No. 21 in Browns history?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    Dean Brown
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    Stan Brown
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    Van Green
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    Oliver Davis
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    Mike Whitwell
    (0 votes)
  • 67%
    Eric Metcalf
    (233 votes)
  • 23%
    Earnest Byner
    (82 votes)
  • 0%
    Marquis Smith
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    Lewis Sanders
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    James Jackson
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    Brodney Pool
    (0 votes)
  • 1%
    Eric Wright
    (5 votes)
  • 0%
    Dimitri Patterson
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    Chris Owens
    (0 votes)
  • 2%
    Justin Gilbert
    (10 votes)
  • 0%
    Jamar Taylor
    (0 votes)
  • 3%
    Denzel Ward
    (11 votes)
344 votes total Vote Now