Fans can argue that the NFL’s evolution from the run-first game of yesteryear to the aerial-focused game of today has affected all positions, but perhaps no greater group on defense has evolved more than the D-line. We’ve seen players who rush the QB become household names as sacks were formally tallied in the 80s.
The Philadelphia Eagles certainly have some excellent pass rushers throughout their history but that’s not all the D-line does. They’re asked to stop the run, deflect passes, and have to deal with these gargantuan blockers on the offensive line. Imagine having to run into a 325-pound guy for 45 plays. Even at 260 or more, that takes a toll on the body.
Top 10 Best Eagles Defensive Linemen All-Time
We’d like to salute some of the great D-linemen over the years who had the privilege to be part of the Bird Gang. This list considers achievements and performances over the years. Yes, it will skew towards the more recent Eagles teams as there are substantially more stats to measure play for defenders than existed in the days of Shibe Park and Franklin Field. Hopefully, we can spark some discussion and pass on the memories.
10. Marion Campbell 1956-1961
Most fans hear the name Marion Campbell and think of the coach between Dick Vermeil and Buddy Ryan. For the older generation, they know Campbell easily deserves a spot on our list of the Eagles best defensive linemen in franchise history.
Campbell joined the Eagles after two years in San Francisco, who drafted him in the fourth round out of Georgia in 1952, but didn’t join the team for two years while serving in the Army during the Korean Conflict. He played many positions for Philly, including one year at MG, or middle guard (I guess that’s the old-fashioned name for nose guard/tackle?)
Campbell played for some strong teams in the 50s and 60s, earning two Pro Bowl nominations in 1959 and 1960. The latter was paired with first-team All-Pro selections and that coveted title of World Champion in 1960.
Campbell was a good player and a very good defensive coordinator under Vermeil. The Eagles led the NFL in the fewest points allowed in 1980 and 1981. However, he was just not cut out for coaching. He led the Falcons twice, once in the 70s and once after Philly axed him from 1987 to 1989. Alas, another fan-favorite coach took the reins in the ATL when he left, as the Falcons hired Jerry Glanville.
9. Hugh Douglas 1998-2002, 2004
Ray Rhodes’ defense needed a big pass rusher when the team signed Hugh Douglas in 1998. After 10 sacks as a rookie with the Jets in 1995, Douglas had just 12 the next two seasons.
In Philadelphia, Douglas found a home and became a nightmare for opposing linemen. He accumulated 12.5 sacks in his first season and 46 tackles. After injuries cut short the 1999 campaign, he had a career year in 2000 with 15 sacks, 54 tackles overall, and a league-leading 21 TFLs. He made his first Pro Bowl and only All-Pro squad.
Douglas was named to three straight Pro Bowls between 2000 and 2002. He recorded 12.5 sacks in 2002 and again led the league with 20 tackles for loss. However, on the “wrong side of 30”, the Birds let him walk and he signed with the Jaguars. Following a disappointing season, he came back to Philly in 2004 and recorded 3.5 sacks for the team that made the Super Bowl.
Douglas has made the successful transition to sports media, as many former Eagles have. Just remember, despite his smiles and jovial demeanor on-air, when he put on pads, that was one bad dude. And yes, he will always be looked at as one of the best Eagles defensive linemen in history.
8. Charlie Johnson 1977-1981
The Eagles selected Charlie Johnson in the seventh round of the 1977 draft from Colorado. After a seven-sack rookie season, he would shift his focus and become an integral part of Vermeil’s strong defenses in the glory years.
While staying at nose tackle, Johnson would become primarily a run defender and come out on passing downs. Despite not registering seven sacks for the rest of his run with Philly, he was a problem for QBs as he recovered fumbles and even registered three INTs in 1980.
Between 78 and 81, he never missed a game and made Pro Bowls the last three of those years. He paired those with the All-Pro selections in 80 and 81.
So what happened? He seemed like he should be a franchise legend with that dominance. Well, after the 1981 season, Johnson lashed out at Coach Vermeil and the practice intensity. He demanded a trade and was shipped to Minnesota, where he finished his career in 1984. Despite the acrimonious departure, the franchise named him to the 75th-anniversary team.
7. Clyde Simmons 1986-1993
If there was a list of ways to have a successful career in the NFL, I bet pretty high up on that list would be “play the opposite side of the field in the same position as a legend.” Clyde Simmonds wore Philadelphia Eagles kelly green uniforms for eight seasons and was on the other side of the line as Reggie White, but he was no second fiddle.
Simmons joined the team in 1986 as a 9th-round pick out of Western Carolina. He saw spot duty on the D-line. However, against the Giants, he scored a game-winning TD on a FG the Giants blocked but he was able to legally recover and advance. Even by historic Eagles vs Giants standards, this is a wild TD.
In 1989, Simmons broke out with 15.5 sacks and a career-high 135 tackles. It would be the first of three straight triple-digit tackle seasons. While White kept coordinators up at night, Simmons was the beneficiary of more favorable assignments and played the edge with great skill.
- 13 sacks in 1991
- League-leading 19 sacks in 1992
- 1993 Pro Bowl & All-Pro selections
When White left via free agency in 1993, Simmons saw his sack total drop to just five for the season, despite 96 total tackles. Like White (and many others on that good defense), Simmons would leave town and head to Arizona. He played six more years in the NFL and enters 2021 as the 11th-highest sack total in league history with 121.5.
6. Jerome Brown 1987-1991
Jerome Brown brought a certain reputation to the Eagles when the franchise selected him in 1987 out of the University of Miami. After all, he was the heart of the Hurricanes’ elite defense and famously led the walkout of the Fiesta Bowl dinner when he and his teammates found Penn State’s skit offensive. Of course, they lost the game but who can forget walking off the airplane in camo?
Brown played inside on a line that included Reggie White and Clyde Simmons. Joined by Mike Pitts, the “Gang Green” defense was one of the league’s toughest. Brown played every game between 1988 and 1991, recording 10.5 sacks in 1989 and recovering five fumbles one year later. In 90 and 91, he made both the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro teams.
Jerome Brown’s Death in 1992
June 25, 1992.
I was watching Jeopardy with my dad in our old house in Waterford. Jim Gardner broke in during a Daily Double and unleashed a straightforward report. “Jerome Brown has died.”
A one-car crash in his native Florida ended the life of one of the NFL’s most promising stars. Worse, many Eagles fans found out about it from his teammate Reggie White, speaking at the Vet that night for a Billy Graham sermon. What could have been…
5. Pete Pihos 1947-1955
We’ve chronicled Pete Pihos as one of the Eagles’ best tight ends in franchise history. But Pihos also made our list of the best Eagles defensive linemen in franchise history. So needless to say, he was pretty amazing on the defensive side of the ball too.
Pihos played in the 40s and 50s when it was common to play both ways, especially as a D-lineman. He joined in 1947 after a career at Indiana and served in World War II. He played end on defense, recording two INTs, forcing eight fumbles, and recovering seven in his career. He made Pro Bowls in his last five seasons and All-Pro in the last three. He was named to the NFL all-1940s team and is enshrined in Canton.
4. Brandon Graham 2010-Present
The Eagles spent a first-round draft pick in 2010 to draft Brandon Graham out of Michigan. His first five years with the team were mostly underwhelming. Graham contributed but didn’t seem to dominate.
He started to earn more starts in 2015 and became a stronger force on defense. He followed up a career-high 59 tackles in 2016 with a career-best 9.5 sacks the following year. Two big plays highlighted that magical season. He caught one of the Rams’ lateral passes at the end of that game and ran it in for a score to seal the division-clinching win.
He also had, of course, perhaps the biggest defensive play in franchise history with his strip-sack of Tom Brady in the final minutes of Super Bowl LII.
Graham has continued his strong play over the past few years. Despite getting older and the defense’s play worsening, he has recorded back-to-back seasons of at least eight sacks. 2020 was his first Pro Bowl season. He has become a reliable leader and the team will look to him to help the team in this transitional period.
He also has a chance to catch Clyde Simmons for third overall in team sacks at 76.
3. Fletcher Cox 2012-Present
Guys in the NFL often stretch the limits of human capability. Some possess a combination of speed and size that shouldn’t work but somehow do. One of those players is Fletcher Cox.
Cox came to the Eagles as a first-round pick in the 2012 draft from Mississippi State. As a rookie, he recorded 39 tackles and 5.5 sacks as a defensive tackle. The team moved him to the defensive end position under Chip Kelly and the team’s unique schemes. In 2015, he made his first Pro Bowl with a 9.5 sack season that included a career-high 71 tackles.
Under Doug Pederson, he went back inside and became one of the most dominant interior linemen in the league. At 310 pounds, he is a difficult match-up for his speed and brute force.
He has not missed a Pro Bowl since 2014. In 2018, a career-high 10.5 sacks and 34 QB hits earned him his first All-Pro selection. In the last three seasons, he has recorded at least 40 tackles.
With the departure of Jason Peters, Cox is one of a few remaining players on the roster who has a chance to make the Hall of Fame.
Some may argue to move Cox into the spot as the #2 best Eagles defensive linemen on our list in place of Trent Cole, and that’s fair. We even flip-flopped a few times before coming to an agreement on the final list.
2. Trent Cole 2005-2014
Trent Cole came to Philadelphia as a fifth-round pick in 2005, a pick the Eagles got by trading James Thrash to Washington. After five sacks as a rookie, the team turned to him in 2006 after Jevon Kearse went down with a leg injury.
Football is a visceral, emotional game. Few D-linemen exhibited that like Cole. He was a wrecking ball rushing the quarterback. Successful plays were accentuated with the archery display, a nod to his hunting enthusiasm.
Cole had four seasons with double-digit sacks between 2007 and 2011. 12.5 sacks in ‘07 and ‘09 led to Pro Bowl berths. Every season included at least one forced fumble. Passes got defended at the line. For a defense that fed off the energy of Brian Dawkins for years, that role shifted to Cole. He became a mainstay on the defense and a threat to disrupt the game.
After the 2014 season and three years at outside linebacker, Cole left for Indianapolis. He played two more seasons but retired with 85.5 career sacks in Philly, second-best in franchise history.
1. Reggie White 1985-1992
What is it to watch true greatness? Is it recognizable in the moment? Putting the Minister of Defense as the #1 best Eagles defensive linemen in history, was the easiest choice we made while creating this list.
When Reggie White would rush the QB, that was something special.
Reggie White was one of the first big signings of the USFL after finishing a dominant career at Tennessee. He stayed in state with Memphis for two years. The Eagles selected White in the 1984 Supplemental Draft, the same draft where Cleveland took Bernie Kosar.
White joined the Eagles in 1985 and put up what might be the best statistical career in franchise history.
- He recorded 13 sacks and 100 tackles in 13 games.
- 18 sacks in 86 led to the first of six straight All-Pros and 13 straight Pro Bowls.
- During the strike-shortened 1987 season, he led the NFL with 21 sacks in 12 games.
Yeah, 21 sacks in 12 games. Play 16 games and that sack record is closer to 25 and likely untouchable for generations.
White again led the NFL with 18 sacks in 1988 to go with a career-high 131 tackles. The 11 sacks he registered in 1989 were a low for his tenure in Philly.
In all those Pro Bowl seasons, he never missed a game. He was the NFC’s best pass rusher in an era that featured some elite ones. That level of speed and power is hard to find in this game. Modern edge rushers play lighter than White’s listed 291 pounds.
As much as White dominated in Philadelphia, owner Norman Braman didn’t seem to have the desire (or bank account) to keep him around. After the 1992 season, White signed for big money with Green Bay, where he continued to make Pro Bowls and eventually won a Super Bowl.
Top 10 Best Eagles Defensive Linemen All-Time – RECAP
- Reggie White
- Trent Cole
- Fletcher Cox
- Brandon Graham
- Pete Pihos
- Jerome Brown
- Clyde Simmons
- Charlie Johnson
- Hugh Douglas
- Marion Campbell