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Fan-Demonium: Underappreciated Eagles

Posted Jun 28, 2012

Fan-Demonium

The Eagles have had some really good players over the years.

There have been some amazing players like Reggie White, Randall Cunningham, Donovan McNabb and Brian Dawkins. There have also been some players who weren't quite of that caliber, but were still pretty darn good and I'm not sure people appreciate enough. Let's take a look at some of my favorite overlooked players.

Brian Mitchell, Running Back/Return Specialist

Brian Mitchell was a player I hated for a long time.

He was a star for the Redskins for years and years. He seemed to be an Eagle-killer, especially when returning kicks or punts. The Eagles signed him in 2000 and I wasn't sure what to think. His return numbers were down in 1999 so maybe he'd finally hit the wall and stared to decline. Boy, I was wrong.

Mitchell was a Godsend for the Eagles special teams, as a returner and leader. I had no idea just how good he was until I started watching him play 16 games a year. Mitch, as I liked to call him, was a bad dude. He was listed at 5-11 and 225 pounds, but seemed shorter and thicker. He was strong as an ox. Most impressively, he ran harder than any returner I've ever seen.

So many young guys catch the ball and their first instinct is to dance (are you listening DeSean?). Mitchell caught the ball and took off. It reminded me of a hilarious scene in Better Off Dead when one guy offers skiing advice to Lane Meyer. He points down and tells Meyer to "Go that way, really fast." That was Mitchell's return style. Catch the ball and run toward the end zone, really fast. There was no hesitation. There was no dancing. The best example of this came in a 2001 game at Arizona. Mitchell caught a kickoff and flew upfield. He hit the hole at full speed and had only the kicker to beat. Mitchell didn't think twice. He ran at the kicker, Bill Gramatica. You remember the Gramatica brothers, right? They weren't the biggest, baddest dudes in the league. Gramatica reached out to make the tackle and Mitchell ran right through it and went all the way for a touchdown. He also separated Gramatica's shoulder.

If I ever coached special teams, I would show Brian Mitchell tapes to my returners. Forget Devin Hester and the stuff he does. You can't copy that magic. Watch Mitchell. He had a style that other players could emulate. It doesn't take amazing natural ability, just discipline and physical toughness. Trying to perfect the style is more difficult than that, but young players can have success if they follow Mitchell's template.

Mitchell only played for the Eagles from 2000-2002, but it sure felt like he was a lifer. His tough, gritty style of play was perfect for the city. He goes down as one of the great free agent signings of the Andy Reid era.

Irving Fryar, Wide Receiver

Irving Fryar is my all-time favorite Eagles receiver. That probably sounds like sacrilege when you think about Harold Carmichael, Mike Quick, Fred Barnett, Terrell Owens, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. Those are all terrific players, but Fryar is a guy that blew me away. When you watched the Eagles in the late 1980s and early 1990s you saw playmakers in Barnett, Cris Carter, and to a lesser extent, Calvin Williams. Barnett was a terrific deep threat. Carter was the king of the red zone (although I don't know what we called it back then). Williams was sneaky good and made enough plays that you had to respect him.

Fryar signed with the Eagles in 1996, as somewhat of an afterthought. The team had lost Barnett in free agency to Miami. Fryar is from the Philly area and was excited to come home. He didn't get big money. Fryar was coming off a good season for the Dolphins, but was about to turn 34 and lacked ideal speed. Guys like that aren't in high demand.

Jon Gruden had brought the West Coast offense to the Eagles in 1995 and it was a mess. Barnett and Williams simply did not like crossing routes. They had played in a more vertical system and had no interest in running through the linebacker area 20 times a game. Fryar was a big, strong, physical receiver and a perfect fit for the WCO. He loved crossing routes and slants. Fryar knew he lacked the speed to out-run defensive backs so he used his size and strength to get in good position. He gave his quarterbacks a good target to throw at on inside routes and over the middle of the field. This was a new concept for me as an Eagles fan. I loved it.

Fryar posted great numbers in 1996, catching 88 passes for 1,195 yards and 11 touchdowns. He followed that with 86 catches for 1,316 yards and six touchdowns in 1997. The only Eagles receiver who had comparable consecutive seasons like that was Quick early in his career. Sadly, the quarterback play was disastrously bad in 1998 and Fryar's play fell drastically. He then went to the Redskins for a final couple of years, but didn't do a lot there.

Andy Harmon, Defensive End

We all remember the great line Buddy Ryan put together for Gang Green: Reggie, Jerome Brown, Clyde Simmons, Mike Pitts and Mike Golic. We also remember the linemen of the early part of the Reid era: Hugh Douglas, Hollis Thomas, Cory Simon and Darwin Walker. In between those two groups, the Eagles still had some pretty good players. The best of the bunch was Andy Harmon. He was drafted in 1991 and came to the Eagles from Kent State as an end/tackle tweener. He was listed at 6-4 and 265 pounds.

Lawlor

Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He was a finalist for Philadelphia's Most Influential Blogger Award and is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com

Harmon was a backup defensive end in 1991, but mainly played on special teams. He got on the field quite a bit in 1992 and recorded 7.0 sacks. He was a full-time starter after that and tallied 31 sacks from 1993-1995. Harmon bulked up to the 275-pound range to be a better run defender. He still lived and died with his quickness and athleticism. He was a very disruptive player and had Pro Bowl potential.

Unfortunately, Harmon hurt his knee in a preseason game in the summer of 1996. He came back at midseason and played in two games, even recording a sack. He just wasn't the same guy and didn't play again that year. He tried to play in 1997, but only took part in five games and just wasn't the Harmon of old. It was heartbreaking to see his career come to an end due to an injury in a preseason game. Harmon was just hitting the prime of his career. Such a shame.

William Fuller, Defensive End

If I'm going to cover the defensive line from that time period, I have to mention William Fuller. Reggie left for Green Bay after the 1992 season. He was technically replaced by Tim Harris, but that lasted only a year. The Eagles signed Fuller prior to the 1994 season and he was a legitimate replacement for Reggie. Fuller wasn't in White's class, but he was a Pro Bowl performer in each of his years as an Eagle.

Fuller wasn't just a good player. He was the foundation of the line, like White was. Fuller was a tough run defender and good pass rusher. He was ultra-competitive and would battle any lineman. The other players fed off of Fuller's style of play and his toughness. Fuller might be my second favorite Eagle of all time (Reggie is in a class by himself).

Why Fuller? I'm sure many of you are wondering? I just loved the way he played and the fact that he was able to take Reggie's place and hold the fort. Fuller had 35.5 sacks in three years. He didn't have great players around him, but the defense still finished in the top five in fewest yards allowed in each of his three years. That doesn't happen without his play, toughness and leadership. My favorite Fuller play came in a 1996 game against the Cardinals late in the season. It was late in the first half and the Eagles only rushed two players. Fuller collapsed half the offensive line and sacked the quarterback.

David Alexander, Guard/Center

The Eagles offensive line wasn't a strong unit during the Buddy Ryan and Rich Kotite eras. There were revolving doors at multiple positions and no stars. There was one player who kept things under control, center David Alexander. He started 12 games in 1988, playing guard. Ryan actually called him the team's "most consistent lineman". That was high praise for a second-year player who was out of position.

Alexander moved to the middle in 1989 and started the next 96 consecutive games for the Eagles. He was tiny by today's standards. Alexander listed at just 6-3 and 275 pounds. Heck, Jason Kelce could pick on him. Alexander was a good, but not great player. He wasn't physically special. He was a quick, agile player. He was a good leader. Don't underestimate how important that was back then. Eagles fans today are accustomed to a stable line. There was a 64-game stretch in Alexander's career where the line had 19 different combinations. There were six left tackles, six left guards and five right guards in that stretch. That is amazing (and not in a good way). Cunningham didn't know what to expect from his offensive line, but he could count on Alexander to keep him safe up the middle and to keep the rest of the line functioning as best as possible.

Mark McMillian, Cornerback

Mark McMillian wasn't just tiny by NFL standards. At 5-7 and 150 pounds, he was small by any standard. He was good enough to play at Alabama and that helped him to get drafted in the 10th round in 1992. He was good enough to crack the lineup of that defense as a rookie and play alongside Reggie, Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner, Byron Evans, Andre Waters, Wes Hopkins, Willie T. and Eric Allen. McMillian might have been small, but he was fast and fearless. He wasn't afraid to make mistakes or big plays. He was a full-time starter for the Eagles from 1993-1995.

My favorite McMillian moment came in the Wild Card win over Detroit in 1995. He picked off a pass early in the game that led to a Charlie Garner touchdown run. The Eagles had only won a single playoff game in the last decade. Even that game was a big-time, come-from-behind win. McMillian's interception set the tone for the Lions game and gave me great confidence in the team. The Eagles went on to win 58-37. McMillian finished his five-team NFL career with 23 interceptions. He might have lacked ideal size, but had a good career and made the most of his abilities.

Kevin Turner, Fullback

Kevin Turner is my favorite fullback of all time, regardless of team. He was a unique guy. Turner wasn't huge, but was an outstanding blocker. He was as tough as a two-dollar steak, as the saying goes. What made him special is that he was also a gifted runner and receiver. He did some really good things during his time as an Eagle.

I still remember reading about the transaction in 1995 when the Eagles got him. I had watched him play a bit for the Patriots, but didn't know much about him. Turner looked good in the preseason and got me fired up to watch him play. He then got hurt and missed the 1995 season after just two games. Turner was back for 1996 and his blocking helped Ricky Watters to have the best year of his NFL career. Turner also caught 43 passes.

It took a while for Gruden to figure out how to use him. Eventually he would run screens to Turner. He would use Turner on the wheel route as a downfield target. Gruden also let him run the ball. Turner averaged 5.0 yards per carry in the 1996 and 1997 seasons. He caught 82 passes combined over those two seasons. Turner remained a good blocker and special teams player.

The reason I love Turner is that he was truly a complete player. Keith Byars was a fullback that could catch. Leonard Weaver was a fullback that could catch and run. Jon Ritchie could block and catch. Turner is the best blocker of the group. He was a very good pass catcher. He was a gifted runner. He also did his part on special teams. Turner would have better numbers if he wasn't in a backfield with Watters, Charlie Garner and Duce Staley. He only got to be a complementary weapon as an Eagle, but did great in that role and never complained about doing the dirty work.

Turner is now battling ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). Follow him on Twitter and interact with him. He loves to hear from Eagles fans. Turner is active in raising funds to cure ALS. Support his cause if you can. At least give him some moral support and let him know he's still loved by Eagles fans.

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