The Legacy of the Position: Eagles, Defensive Line
While the needs vary each year, the NFL Draft brings hope and optimism to every single franchise. Many view this hope as being for the fortunes of the franchise and in a lot of ways they are correct. New faces to the organization can spark championship dreams. But there is another kind of hope that needs to be discussed. The hope is that player lives up to the standards set before him by those who once stood in his shoes for the franchise. This year, the Philadelphia Eagles needed to beef up their defensive line and drafted Jalen Carter and Moro Ojomo. Let's take a look at their history with the position and the standards that have already been set.
The Legacy of the Position
Up until 1950, the NFL was largely dominated by two-way players, those special men who routinely summoned the inhuman strength and endurance to battle on both sides of the ball for 60 minutes every Sunday. Walt Barnes became the Eagles' first stud defensive tackle, earning a Pro Bowl invitation in 1950. Two years later, Bucko Kilroy moved from the offense and promptly led the defense from his nose tackle position for the next three years, earning Pro Bowl honors each year. He was a sensation in 1954, his last full year as a starter, picking off four passes and recovering four fumbles.
While Kilroy was making a name for himself on Philly's defense, Jess Richardson was building a resume of his own. The local product had been with the team since 1953 and had slowly worked his way up the lineup, eventually becoming a full-time starter in 1954 and 1958. By 1959, he received his first and only Pro Bowl invitation and was a key cog along the line as the Eagles won the NFL Championship the following year.
As Richardson's career wound down, the team turned to Floyd Peters, an acquisition from Cleveland in 1964. His impact was immediate for the Eagles, recording 5.5 sacks and going to his first Pro Bowl in his first year on the squad. Two years later, he recorded 8.5 sacks and was again invited to the Pro Bowl. By the time he left for Washington in 1970, he had been three Pro Bowls for the now-lowly Eagles.
The 1970s was a lost decade for the Eagles and they experimented with many different combinations on the defensive front. Nameless players such as Don Hultz, Gary Pettigrew, Houston Antwine and Rich Glover were merely men filling roles on the team as they suffered losing season after losing season.
And then Dick Vermeil arrived. With America celebrating its bicentennial in the summer of 1976, Vermeil began turning his men into workaholics. At the time, the Eagles were operating out a 4-3 alignment that featured tackles Manny Sistrunk and Carl Hairston, but after a 4-10 season they elected to go with a 3-4 alignment from then on, hoping for the best.
The results were staggering. Because of the new alignment, they were able to plug Charlie Johnson in at nose tackle and move both Sistrunk and Hairston to the outside. Sistrunk was never very big, topping out at 6'3" 266 lbs, but he was strong and could hold his own against the opposing center. Meanwhile, with two former tackles now serving as ends, the Eagles now had three guys who were more than willing to take on double and triple teams while the linebackers did all of the glamorous work such as tackling.
With this new alignment, the team worked harder and harder until they found themselves in New Orleans for the 1980 Super Bowl. Unfortunately, they ran into a Raiders team that was on a hot-streak. The Eagles never stood a chance as the Raiders won handily 27-10.
Still, Charlie Johnson was inspired. After all, he had just completed a second straight Pro Bowl season and was named first-team All-Pro for the first time in his career. but the team's fortunes began to change. Despite Johnson's Pro Bowl/All-Pro 1981 season, the Eagles fell to the Giants in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs and Vermeil resigned due to fatigue, all the hard work becoming his undoing. Meanwhile, Johnson left for greener pastures in Minnesota.
With Johnson's departure, the team was able to plug in Ken Clarke, a longtime reserve. He proved to be more than just serviceable as a nose tackle, racking up 4.5 sacks in his first year as a starter. Two years later, he began a streak almost incomprehensible for someone in his position. He recorded 10.5 sacks in 1984, seven sacks in 1985 and eight sacks in 1986. Now, it's worth keeping in mind that the great Reggie White joined the organization in the middle of that streak, taking some of the pressure off of Clarke and his comrades.
Despite his incredible streak, Ken Clarke never made it to the Pro Bowl and left for Seattle in 1988. His departure came right when Jerome Brown was coming into his own as a player. Much has been written about the legendary defensive tackle who died far too young. He was like a shooting star in the night sky, his strength and general athleticism are still talked about around the league to this day.
In his first three years in the league, he recorded 19.5 sacks, topping off at 10.5 in 1989. Strangely, despite the league's increased interest in the passing game, he wasn't invited to the Pro Bowl that year. In fact, it wasn't until the following years when he recorded just a single sack that he was named first-team All-Pro and made his first Pro Bowl. He was more productive in 1991, sacking quarterbacks nine times while earning All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors for the second straight year.
Everything looked good for Jerome Brown and it looked like he was well on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But tragedy struck his family that offseason as he and his nephew were killed in a car accident. The devastated Eagles immediately retired his jersey number 99 and played the year for him. They even won a rare playoff game in his honor. But no amount of inspiration could have prepared them for Dallas the following week, they needed their teammate, their brother, with them on the field. And thus, a magically glum season came to a close.
As t he team continued to mourn the loss of Jerome Brown and as Reggie White left in free agency that offseason, more cleats needed to be filled. Andy Harmon quickly stepped in and played admirably, recording seven sacks in his first year as a starter in 1992. He played even better the next three years, recording 31.5 sacks between those years and twice recording double-digit sacks. But despite his success, he was never invited to the Pro Bowl, but he was named second-team All-Pro in 1995 after recording 11 sacks.
From there, the team began to search for its next big-name defensive tackle. Names such as Rhett Hall, Kevin Johnson and Hollis Thomas graced the programs in Veterans Stadium, but that's just about all they did. Eventually, the Eagles found their guy in 2000. As a rookie, Corey Simon recorded 9.5 sacks and 52 tackles and the following year he recorded 7.5 while the team made its first trip to the NFC Championship Game since 1980. Two years later, Corey Simon made his first and only Pro Bowl after recording 7.5 sacks and 42 tackles.
The following year, the Eagles made it all the way to the Super Bowl, but despite Simon's two tackles, lost by a field goal to the Patriots. After the Super Bowl, Corey Simon left Philadelphia and the Eagles were left to find his replacement. In the next few years, the Eagles had a rotating cast of replacements such as Hollis Thomas, Mike Patterson, Broderick Bunkley and Antonio Dixon. While they remained successful, the Eagles lacked stability up the middle.
In 2012, they found that stability in the form of a perfect 6'4" 310 lb frame. Hailing from Mississippi State, Fletcher Cox proved to be all that the Eagles had hoped he would be and more. He started his career lining up as a defensive tackle, racking up 5.5 sacks, but in the next few years he switched over to end where his naturally quick feet could terrorize quarterbacks more. He was terrific as an end and was invited to his first Pro Bowl in 2015 after collecting 9.5 sacks and making 71 tackles.
That would be his last year as a defensive end. Seeing his advancing age, the Eagles figured that he would be better suited as a tackle that late in his career. They weren't wrong as he went to the Pro Bowl in each of the next five years and was even named an All-Pro in 2018. He's still there, but at age 32 his days as a player are numbered. Only time will tell if either Jalen Carter or Moro Ojomo will pan out an live up to the Eagles' standard.