The Hall of Fame Series: Carl Eller
Class of 2004
Heading into 1964, the Minnesota Vikings were still finding their footing in the NFL. The team was 10-30-2 after three seasons prior, setting them up with the sixth-overall pick in the draft. There, they selected future Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller, the consensus All-American who had just finished a spectacular career for the Minnesota Golden Gophers (he remains the only top-10 pick from the Gophers since then). Eller was also selected by the Buffalo Bills fifth-overall in the AFL draft. Unlike Hall of Fame linebacker Bobby Bell a year earlier, Eller chose the hometown Vikings over the rival AFL. The second piece of the Purple People Eaters had been added.
Standing 6-6, 247 pounds, Eller had been fittingly named “Moose”. With size, power, and speed, Eller terrorized offenses from the start, recording 7.5 sacks as a rookie and helping lead Minnesota to their first winning season in franchise history. With the arrivals of defensive tackles Gary Larsen in 1965 and Alan Page in 1967, the Purple People Eaters were formed.
In 1968, with the unit gelling and in its second season under head coach Bud Grant, Eller and the defense took off. Eller was named first-team All-Pro for the first time, racking up eight sacks. In 1969, he led the NFL with 15 sacks, a mark that would be a career-high. Eller even added three sacks in three playoff games to end the season. Eller would end up being named first-team All-Pro five times (1968-71, ‘73). For his efforts, Eller was given the George Halas Award, presented to the NFL’s defensive player of the year. In 1967 and 1972, he was still good enough to earn second-team All-Pro honors.
Even though this period of Eller’s career saw him receive the most accolades, his play didn’t fall off. From 1974 through 1977, Eller continued chasing quarterbacks down, notching 45 sacks. His only post-season award was a trip to the Pro Bowl following the 1974, his sixth and final trip to the game. In 1977, Eller tied his career-high with 15 sacks. How he got ignored for All-Pro or Pro Bowl nods is baffling, to say the least. While Harvey Martin was an obvious choice with 20 sacks, guys like Lyle Alzado, Claude Humphrey, and Jack Youngblood all received honors despite not posting more than 10 sacks.
Up through 1977, Eller had started all but two games with the Vikings. This changed in 1978 when 1975 first-round selection Mark Mullaney stole half of the 14 starts. Eller, at the age of 36, still got to the quarterback five times.
Eller would play one final season with Seattle in 1979 before retiring. When he hung it up, Eller had 133.5 career sacks, tied for 18th-overall (with John Abraham) on Pro Football Reference’s unofficial sack leaders list. At the time of his retirement, Eller’s 23 fumble recoveries ranked third all-time among non-quarterbacks.
With his long-overdue induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004, Carl Eller became the second member of the feared defensive line to enter Canton (and hopefully not the last). His impact is still felt with both the Gophers and Vikings. Every season the Gophers’ defensive player of the year receives the Carl Eller Award, and his name still resides in the Vikings’ Ring of Honor to this day.