The Philadelphia Eagles have been an NFL franchise since 1933 and over the course of the past 79 years, many great players have donned the winged helmet (or leather helmet).
However, most of the great Philadelphia Eagles players we remember were drafted, either by the Eagles themselves or by another team before they came to Philly.
So while we all pay tribute to greatest of Eagles, who were the greatest players who went undrafted? With the exception of a certain few, many of the best undrafted players for the Eagles have largely gone unheralded yet they did make great contributions for the team.
Undrafted free agents are usually the long-shots to make a roster, let alone make a name for themselves in the NFL. Back in the day, prior to current technology and vast scouting departments, the odds of an undrafted player making the roster were much better.
These days, though there are still numerous UDFAs that make rosters, the chances of them becoming entrenched as NFL starters for several years are low. Therefore, these players have to fight that much harder to overcome their long odds and their accomplishments should not go unnoticed.
With that said, let’s take a look at the 10 greatest undrafted free agents in Philadelphia Eagles history. At the end, I’ll throw out a few honorable mentions as well. By the way, these are not rankings and are listed in no specific order.
*Note – I’m only counting the undrafted free agents signed initially by the Eagles, with just one exception (you’ll see later).
1. Herman Edwards
Herm Edwards was probably the biggest surprise and biggest success story out of all the undrafted players on this list. He joined the Eagles as a UDFA in 1977 and went on to start every game of his nine-year career at cornerback for the Eagles.
Though he was never named to a pro bowl, I find it remarkable that an undrafted player would start as a rookie and then never miss a game for the next nine years. After his playing career was over, he then moved on to a coaching career that included stints as head coach for the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs.
Edwards notched 33 career interceptions for the Eagles, just one short of the franchise record. He also earned a place in Eagles lore for the original “Miracle of the Meadowlands” when he scooped up a fumble in the waning seconds of a 1978 game against the Giants and returned it for the winning score.
2. Bucko Kilroy
Every time I hear the word “bucko”, I can’t help but think of Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. That was the name he’d call people when he was ready to throw down, 50′s style.
However, “Bucko” Kilroy was actually a pretty darn good player for the Eagles from 1943 to 1955. He joined the Eagles as an undrafted player during the season when the Eagles and Steelers merged to form the “Steagles” (yes, the Eagles, not the Steelers, signed him).
Kilroy was a two-way player for the Eagles as an offensive and defensive lineman. He only missed one game in his career and was named to three pro bowls.
He was one the old-days’ true iron men.
Kilroy was also known as one of the meanest, and perhaps dirtiest, players of his era. However, he was named to the 1940′s all-decade team and was a part of the Eagles’ 1948 and 1949 championship teams.
3. Ken Clarke
Clarke signed with the Eagles as an undrafted player in 1978 and played for the next 10 years, including six as a starter at nose tackle. He accumulated 32.5 sacks during his time in Philly, which is a pretty good number from someone at his position.
After becoming a full-time starter in 1982, he only missed one game for the rest of his time in Philly. He, along with Herm Edwards, was a part of the 1980 Super Bowl defense.
4. Chad Lewis
Lewis was a 6′ 6″, 252 lbs tight end that initially signed with the Eagles as an undrafted player in 1997. He was cut by the team in 1999 but re-signed after the season.
The following season marked the first of three consecutive pro bowl years. Lewis accumulated 228 receptions for 2,349 yards and 23 TDs over the duration of his nine years with the Eagles.
Lewis’ last meaningful catch as an Eagle was a game-clinching touchdown pass in the 2004 season’s NFC championship game that sent the Eagles to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, he suffered a serious Lisfranc injury to his foot that basically ended his career.
5. Andre “Dirty” Waters
Waters signed with the Eagles as an undrafted player out of Cheyney in 1984. He was a 5′ 11″, 200 lbs strong safety who played for 10 years with the team and was part of one of the best defenses of all time: Gang Green.
He earned the nickname “Dirty” Waters due to his violent playing style. He was known for his vicious hits that in today’s game would probably have him banned. It was his hit on a quarterback in 1988 that led to the NFL rule of not being able to hit a QB below the waist while standing in the pocket.
Waters’ playing style made him a Eagles fan favorite, even though he was penalized quite often. He was mostly known for his hitting, but he also notched 15 career interceptions during his career and was named to the All-Pro team in 1991.
6. Ed “Bibbles” Bawel
Come on, how can you not like a guy with the nickname of “Bibbles?” His last name was actually pronounced “bobble”, so when people said his name it sounded like “Bibbles Bobble.”
That alone should earn him a place on this list.
Bawel was an undrafted player who signed with the Eagles in 1952. His career was interrupted by being called into military duty so he actually only played for the Eagles for three full seasons.
However, according to Ray Didinger’s Eagles Encyclopedia, he was a memorable player because he had a knack for big plays.
Bawel was a defensive back and punt returner who scored three touchdowns on returns (INT and PR). In just 36 total games, he had 18 interceptions and averaged almost 18 yards per return.
In 1955, he recorded nine INTs which stood as a team record until 1971. Though his career was short, Bawel made a name for himself as a big-play guy. Not bad for a guy that would almost certainly have his own “bobble” head these days.
7. Jamaal Jackson
Jackson signed as an undrafted center out of the small school of Delaware State in 2003. He spent his first season on the team’s practice squad but eventually earned a starting job in 2005 after taking over for injured starter Hank Fraley (who, by the way, was a good undrafted player not signed by the Eagles initially).
Jackson would become a solid starter for the next four years and earned Sports Illustrated all-pro honors in 2006. Some felt he was snubbed out of a few pro bowl honors as he was regarded as one of the best centers in the league.
Jackson might still be playing had injuries not derailed his career in 2009 and 2010. When the Eagles brought in Howard Mudd and his offensive line scheme, there wasn’t a place for him any more in Philadelphia and is now considering retirement.
8. Hollis Thomas
Thomas signed with the Eagles in 1996 and spent the next 10 years in Philadelphia, five as a starting defensive tackle. He notched 316 tackles and 13.5 sacks during his time with the team.
Thomas was also one of the more jovial and outspoken characters on the Eagles as he was often seen goofing off on the sidelines and in front of the cameras.
At 6′, 340 lbs, he was not a big pass rusher but rather carved out a niche as a solid run stuffer. He was one of the better 2-gap defensive tackles the Eagles have had since the mid 90′s.
When the Eagles drafted Brodrick Bunkley in 2006, Thomas was promptly traded away to New Orleans where he played two more seasons and recorded another 6.5 sacks. Not a bad career for the undrafted player out of Northern Illinois.
9. Joe Carter
We might be able to call Joe Carter the “original undrafted free agent” for the Eagles. He signed with the team in 1933, their first year in franchise history.
Carter was a wide receiver who started all but six games over the course of his eight-year career in Philly. During his time, he accumulated 115 catches for 1,810 yards and 21 TDs.
That’s basically the stats of one year by someone like Calvin Johnson these days but back then, the game was much different. However, Carter is still part of the Eagles’ record book as he is one of three players to catch four touchdown passes in one game.
Carter also played well enough to be a two-time pro bowler and for an undrafted player, that’s quite an accomplishment.
10. Quintin Mikell
Mikell isn’t the flashiest player on this list, but he deserves to be a part of it. He signed as an undrafted free agent out of Boise State in 2003 and was a solid player for the team through the 2010 season.
He initially made a name for himself on special teams and was voted the MVP in 2005 and 2006. He also served as a solid backup at both safety positions where he subbed for starters Brian Dawkins and Michael Lewis.
In 2007, he took over the starting strong safety job and held that through the 2010 season. In his time with the Eagles, he posted 446 tackles, 10 INTs, seven forced fumbles and four sacks.
Mikell also earned one pro bowl honor along with being voted all-pro twice. When Brian Dawkins left, Mikell also became one of the team leaders but once his contract expired after the 2010 season, the Eagles did not bring him back (much to the chagrin of some Eagles fans).
Rod Hood – signed as a UDFA in 2003. He quickly developed into an excellent slot corner and recorded five INTs over his four-year career with the Eagles. Ended up signing a nice free agent contract in Arizona in 2007.
Tommy Thompson – was a UDFA, but initially signed by Pittsburgh. However, his stint with the Steelers was very brief and he ended up signing with Philly shortly thereafter in 1941.
Why does he deserve a place on this list? Well, for an undrafted player he carved out quite a career as a quarterback.
He didn’t put up spectacular numbers and was actually an “on again, off again” starter, but as per Ray Didinger’s Eagles encyclopedia, he was an integral part of the Eagles’ two championship teams in 1948 and ’49 (also led the team to the 1947 championship game as well).
Thompson earned pro bowl honors once and also led the league one year with 25 touchdown passes and led the league in completion percentage another year. If he had been initially signed by the Eagles, he would certainly be one of the greatest Philadelphia Eagles’ undrafted players.
Lastly, how can I not mention Mr. “Invincible”…Vince Papale. Was he a “great player”? Not really, but he didn’t even play college football and made the team basically right off the street (though he did get some football experience with the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League).
He lasted three seasons as a special teams player with the Eagles and was the inspiration for the movie Invincible, starring Mark Wahlberg. He’s a great Philadelphia story and was actually named to the Eagles’ 75th anniversary team.
Sources: Ray Didinger’s Eagles Encyclopedia, Pro Football Reference, Wikipedia