Reggie White is one of the greatest defensive linemen in NFL history. For my money, he's the best ever.
He played 15 seasons and was dominant for most of them. Not good. Dominant. When White retired, he had the NFL record for sacks in a career with 198. To put that in perspective, J.J. Watt could have 12 sacks a year for the next decade and still come up short of White's total. Amazing. White wasn't just about stats and personal glory. He played on some great units and made it to two Super Bowls, winning one with the Packers in 1996.
There is no question that White is the greatest defensive lineman in Eagles history. He racked up 124 sacks in the 121 games he played for the Eagles. White didn't just punish quarterbacks. He played left defensive end and was a key to the stout run defense. The Eagles ranked in the top 10 in run defense for six straight years and led the league in two of those seasons. Numbers don't tell the whole story. You had to watch White play to really appreciate him. He could dominate good offensive tackles. He could get the best of double-teams. White is one of the few players who would have to deal with triple-teams, the ultimate sign of respect from the opposing offense.
White was a special player because he was so gifted. He was big at 6-5 and 300 pounds. He was powerful, as anyone who watched him toss around blockers can testify to. White was quick and fast. Men of his size aren't supposed to move like that. He also was agile. He could bend, twist, dip or whatever was needed to get by blockers. It is rare to find a player with that combination of size, athleticism and strength.
The Eagles are fortunate to have a similar player on the roster right now. I'm talking about Fletcher Cox, of course. He's not as good as White, but Cox is special in his own right. He has a great combination of size, strength and athletic ability. The Eagles signed him to a huge contract extension this past week. That was a great move.
Any time you have a special player on your roster, you do what it takes to keep him around. It still burns me to think that White was allowed to walk away from the Eagles. That move changed the fates of two organizations. It hurt the Eagles and helped make the Packers a Super Bowl team. The Eagles weren't going to let history repeat itself. Jeffrey Lurie, Howie Roseman and Doug Pederson all know Cox is a special player. They gave him a special contract so he can finish out his career as an Eagle, hopefully becoming one of the all-time greats.
Cox is coming off his best season. He had 9.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, a couple of pass deflections and six tackles for loss. Not bad for a player who was told to read and react in last year's defensive system. Cox could put up some big numbers playing in Jim Schwartz's attacking scheme. It also helps that Cox is just getting to the prime of his career. White had 21 sacks in 1987, when he was 26 years old. Cox will turn 26 this season.
Honestly, we can only speculate on just how good Cox will be. He is so talented that it is really hard to know what his ceiling is. While I don't think he'll get to White's level because that is so rare, Cox could end up being the second-best defensive lineman in team history. The Eagles have been blessed to have some great defensive linemen over the years. Where does Cox rank now? We'll focus on the last 30 years since sacks didn't become an official stat until 1982 and that is such a crucial part of evaluating defensive linemen.
Tommy Lawlor's Top 10 Eagles Defensive Linemen Of The Last 30 Years
1. Reggie White
2. Jerome Brown
3. Clyde Simmons
4. Trent Cole
5. Fletcher Cox
6. Corey Simon
7. William Fuller
8. Hugh Douglas
9. Andy Harmon
10. Hollis Thomas
White is at the top of the heap. Up next is Jerome Brown, who was a great defensive tackle from 1987-91. Brown died tragically in June of 1992, just as he was entering the prime of his career. Brown wasn't huge at 6-2 and 292 pounds. He was explosively quick and strong as a bull. Playing in Buddy Ryan's 46 defense allowed Brown to shoot gaps and attack up the field. He was incredibly disruptive and a key part of some outstanding defenses. Brown had 29.5 career sacks. He picked off three passes and recovered 10 fumbles. That's a lot of touches for an interior defensive lineman. Brown had a real knack for making plays or being around the ball at a key moment.
As good as Brown was, I think Cox can be even better. Cox is bigger and stronger. He is a more versatile, more skilled player. I think playing in the 3-4 defense for three years will benefit him in the long run. Cox played end in the base unit and had to learn how to play in space. He also needed a variety of moves to help him go against offensive tackles instead of just shooting gaps. Brown was incredibly good, but Cox is just scratching the surface of how good he can be.
After White and Brown, things aren't as obvious. Clyde Simmons played on the same defensive line as White and Brown. You can argue that both helped and hurt him. It helped because offenses couldn't double-team him for fear of getting burned by White or Brown. It also hurt Simmons because he played with so many good players that it limited how many plays he could make. Still, Simmons had his moments. He led the NFL with 19 sacks in 1992. He finished his career with more than 120 sacks. Simmons wasn't explosive. He wasn't smooth. He was a tall pass rusher at 6-6 and 280 pounds, with long arms. Simmons was athletic enough to get the best of some darn good left tackles. Despite playing in White's shadow, Simmons was named All-Pro twice.
Trent Cole was an Eagle for 10 years and was a mainstay at right defensive end. Cole racked up 85.5 sacks and 19 forced fumbles in his time with the Eagles. He was never a great player, but was outstanding on a consistent basis. Cole was just as good against the run as he was a pass rusher. Cole could set the edge on run plays that came at him or he could chase the ball and make hustle plays when the offense attacked away from him. Cole played on one great defense, the 2008 unit that finished top five in most categories.
For now, I would put Cox in the slot after Cole. There is no question that Cox is more talented, but Cole was a productive player for a decade. That means something. If Cox plays to the level I expect, he'll fly by Cole and Simmons in the next year or two.
Next on the list would be Corey Simon. Things did not end well with him, both his time with the Eagles and overall NFL career. That's a shame because it overshadows how good he was early on. The Eagles spent the sixth overall pick on Simon in 2000 and he did not disappoint. Simon sacked Troy Aikman on his very first NFL play. Not many defensive linemen can say they began their career by sacking a future Hall of Fame quarterback.
Simon looked great early on. After just two seasons, Simon had 16.5 sacks and six forced fumbles. He was on his way to being a special player. Unfortunately, things did not continue at that pace. Simon remained a good player, but wasn't as productive or disruptive. He had his moments, but wasn't as good. Simon helped the team get to the Super Bowl in 2004. Sadly, that was the last game he played for the Eagles. A nasty contract dispute ended his time in Philly and some health issues eventually took him out of football. He only played 17 games after the Super Bowl.
Rounding out the top 10 would be William Fuller, Hugh Douglas, Andy Harmon and Hollis Thomas. Fuller was only an Eagle for three years, but the defense finished top five in yards allowed each of those seasons. He totaled 35.5 sacks and 12 forced fumbles in that span. Fuller wasn't surrounded by great talent. He was a key leader and helped those teams to maximize the talent they did have.
Harmon was a terrific interior pass rusher, piling up 31.5 sacks from 1993 to 1995. A knee injury in a preseason game ended a promising career or he might be higher on the list.
It will be fun to revisit this discussion in a few years. How much higher will Cox be on the list? Will Vinny Curry, Bennie Logan or Brandon Graham be on the list at that point? I can't wait to see the guys turned loose in the new system.
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