Who is the best Cleveland Browns player to ever wear number 71?
The Countdown to the 2020 NFL season is upon us. With 71 days remaining until the Browns season opener, we continue the countdown by celebrating the best Cleveland Browns player to ever wear number 71: Walter Johnson.
Walter Johnson was selected by the Cleveland Browns in the second round with the 27th overall pick in the 1965 NFL draft out of New Mexico State University. Prior to playing at New Mexico State, Johnson was a two-way star player at Los Angeles State. However, the Browns drafted Johnson to play defensive tackle.
When the Browns drafted Johnson in 1965, they still had two solid defensive tackles in Dick Modzelewski and Jim Kanicki. Both Modzelewski and Kanicki were still starting level defensive tackles, which meant that Johnson would have to wait for his opportunity.
And wait is exactly what Johnson had to do. Although he saw plenty of playing time in his rookie year, Johnson only made one start for an injured Modzelewski. It was in Johnson’s second season that the baton was officially passed from Modzelewski to Johnson, and he started 12 games at left defensive tackle in 1966.
By 1967, the position of left defensive tackle was firmly in Johnson’s grasp and it remained there for the next 10 seasons. Also in 1967, Johnson raised his level of play and was named to his first Pro Bowl for his efforts. Alongside Kanicki, the duo formed one of the best defensive tackle tandems in the NFL.
The next two seasons brought much of the same. In 1968 and 1969, Johnson and Kanicki dominated the interior of the defensive line. In both of those seasons, Johnson was again named to the Pro Bowl. In addition to his success on the gridiron, Johnson began a professional wrestling career in the offseason during this same time period.
However, after the 1969 season, Kanicki was among a trio of Browns that were traded to the New York Giants for receiver Homer Jones. The trade left a massive hole on the left side of the defensive line. The Browns wasted no time in filling that void when they drafted, yesterday’s entry on the countdown, Jerry Sherk.
Sherk was able to start straight away, and once again the Browns and Johnson found themselves in a similar situation. Without missing a beat the Browns had one of the most preeminent defensive tackle tandems in the AFC Central and the NFL. For the next seven seasons, Johnson and Sherk were anchors in the middle of the Browns defense.
Following the 1976 season, Johnson, after 12 seasons in Cleveland, signed with the in-state rival Cincinnati Bengals where he played one season before retiring. He continued his professional wrestling career until 1984.
Johnson was added to the Browns Legends Program posthumously in 2008. He was an absolute stud of a defensive tackle and is the best player to ever wear number 71 in franchise history.