As the Eagles’ 2016 season was nearing its end, the offensive line was limping toward the finish line.
Thanks to Lane Johnson’s suspension and several injuries across the line, the Eagles needed someone to take scout team reps at offensive tackle. So they asked reserve defensive tackle Taylor Hart.
“They needed a little bit of help,” Hart told CSNPhilly.com on Monday. “That’s where the whole idea grew from.”
The idea Hart talked about is a pretty big move in his career. When the spring rolls around, Hart will no longer be a defensive lineman. Instead, he’ll try to prolong his career by switching to offensive tackle.
At first, the idea wasn’t to make Hart switch positions permanently, but the 25-year-old was impressive during practice. And still, it wasn’t until after the season that the decision to permanently switch positions was made. Hart said he talked it over with the team, his family and agent and came to the conclusion it was a good idea.
“We all decided that this was a great route to prolong my career with the Eagles,” Hart said. “I’m really excited about it.”
Hart came to the Eagles as a fifth-round pick in 2014 but has played minimally during the first three years of his NFL career. He's played in 15 games with one start. Fourteen of those games came in 2015 in a 3-4 defense under then-defensive coordinator Billy Davis.
Before the 2016 season, Hart made the Eagles' original 53-man roster but was then cut as the team claimed three players. From there, he went to join his old coach Chip Kelly in San Francisco. The 49ers waived him on Oct. 22 and the Eagles claimed him but kept him inactive the rest of the way.
The writing was on the wall: Without this decision, it’s very possible Hart’s days with the Eagles were numbered. They might still be. But at least he’s giving it a shot.
At 6-foot-6, 305 pounds and with pretty good athleticism, it seems like Hart has the right makeup to be an offensive tackle.
It took some prodding, but eventually, Hart admitted he was “pretty good” as an offensive lineman in high school; according to the Eagles, he was an all-state tackle. When he went to Oregon, he was given the choice to play offense or defense. He chose defense.
Recently, Hart has been thinking a lot about why he landed on defense back then. He liked the aggressive, attacking nature of being a defensive player, but says he really enjoyed both.
“Maybe looking back at it,” he said, “maybe I should have chosen offensive line.”
This time last year, Hart was worried about a different switch, from Davis’ two-gapping 3-4 defense to Jim Schwartz’s attacking 4-3. At the time, Hart said he thought it was a good thing to get out of his comfort zone. Now, he really is.
The biggest challenges he’ll face relearning to play offensive tackle, according to Hart, will be moving backwards and staying flat-footed. But Hart thinks his knowledge of playing defensive line will help him as he now tries to stop other defensive linemen.
While Hart used to wear No. 97 with the Eagles, when he returned from San Francisco, rookie Destiny Vaeao had already snatched it, so Hart was given 77. That will work — 77 is an offensive lineman-eligible number.
While it’s not common for a defensive lineman to switch to the other side of the ball, it’s not unprecedented either. In fact, Alejandro Villanueva was once with the Eagles in the summer of 2014 (Hart’s rookie year) as a defensive lineman. The former Army captain was cut by the Eagles but latched on with the Steelers and has become Pittsburgh’s starting left tackle.
Hart said that he and Villanueva have remained in contact and have talked about the switch. Seeing Villanueva’s success has made Hart more confident that he can do it too.
“In the NFL, you want to make yourself as valuable as possible,” Hart said. “It really kind of clicked for me. This is a shot for me to really be productive.”