Eagles All-22: Is the Fletcher Cox Criticism Warranted?
Fletcher Cox couldn’t hold in his excitement. Fresh off signing a six-year contract worth a reported $102.6 million, he stood before the media at the NovaCare Complex in June grinning from ear to ear in his gray suit with an Eagles lapel pin.
Howie Roseman made Cox the second highest paid non-quarterback in NFL history, and even though Von Miller’s deal would soon surpass it, Cox still remains as the third-highest paid defensive player in the league. Cox called the money “mind blowing,” while Roseman said the Mississippi native could be a “great player in the history of the franchise.”
Expectations for Cox were sky high, particularly with Jim Schwartz’s new defense — which was hailed as perfect for the 25-year-old — coming to town. Even Cox said Schwartz’s scheme would help him a “whole, whole lot,” before noting increased sack numbers were on the way and how you could expect him “to be in the quarterback’s face a lot.”
Flash forward six months and the headlines have changed drastically. One writer suggested Cox has been a big disappointment, while another opined that Cox hasn’t been a difference maker. So has Cox struggled to live up to his deal, or is he earning every cent of one of the biggest deals in the history of the franchise?
Bad Coverage, Quick Releases And Triple-Teams
Perhaps the biggest criticism of Cox’s play this year stems from his sack total. He hasn’t had one in seven games, and the Eagles have just four as a team in their last five losses. Cox ranks ninth among defensive tackles in sacks and is well short of being on pace to match his 9.5 sacks last season, but he is also third at his position in pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
Cox has just one less sack than Brandon Graham, who has (deservedly) received high praise for his pass rush and plays a position that should get to the quarterback more than an interior lineman. It’s understandable to expect a highly paid player to rack up sacks, but it’s also important to look at those numbers in context.
Take the Eagles’ 27-13 loss to the Packers, for instance. Aaron Rodgers had a heck of a game, completing 30 of his 39 pass attempts for 313 yards, two touchdowns and a 116.7 passer rating. But much attention has been paid to the number of times Rodgers was sacked: zero. Naturally, the defensive line — and particularly Cox — was blamed.
But according to Pro Football Focus, Rodgers got the ball out of his hands in just 2.49 seconds on the average pass attempt, which is his quickest mark of the season by a wide margin. While Rodgers didn’t release the ball every snap as quickly as he did on this play, it’s a perfect example of the mindset with which he played.
Earlier in the game, Rodgers held onto the ball for a bit longer, but he still got it out quickly before Cox — who instantly beat the right guard — could get to him. Jim Schwartz likes to say “coverage goes hand-in-hand with the rush,” which the Green Bay game is a great example of.
“I don’t think there’s anything changed [with our pass rush]. I think sometimes it’s the opponent. Sometimes the ball comes out quick and you have to do a good job in coverage,” Schwartz said. “I’m sure offensive coordinators go in and say, ‘Hey, this team can generate pressure, this team has made big plays sacking the quarterback and forcing turnovers and things like that.’ So that’s going to be their objective — to stay away.”
Another dynamic Cox has dealt with recently is mobile quarterbacks. It’s rarely his job to contain the quarterback in the pocket, and there were times he pushed Rodgers toward the sideline, only for the Packers to pick up some yards despite Cox beating his man.
“The last couple weeks we faced offenses that had quick throws in their offense, but also had quarterbacks that could extend plays,” Schwartz said. “Winning in pass rush didn’t mean you were going to sack the quarterback. Because not only would you have to defeat a blocker, but you had to be able to get the quarterback on the ground and sometimes these quarterbacks were going straight backwards buying time. It’s hard.”
Cox also dealt with considerably more attention than any of his teammates on Monday Night Football. He was blocked by at least two players on the majority of the Packers’ passing plays (excluding screens), and he was even triple-teamed a couple of times.
To be clear: All of this isn’t meant to excuse the lack of pass rush. The Eagles certainly need to bring the quarterback down more, but to blame Cox is misguided. When defensive linemen like Connor Barwin have as many one-on-one as they do with Cox — and sometimes Graham — consuming the offense’s attention, they must take advantage.
But because Cox’s teammates don’t cover long enough for him to reach the quarterback or win their one-on-one battles, people understandably look at the guy making the most money first.
While it’s fair to wonder whether Cox has played at a Pro Bowl level on passing downs, he’s been very dominant against the run. He doesn’t have eye-popping numbers, however, so that disruption often goes overlooked. Even against the Packers, which wasn’t his best game of the season, he played a big role in bringing down the ball-carrier without touching the back on several plays.
On the first play of the game, Cox set up Mychal Kendricks for a tackle-for-loss. On these types of plays, offenses often leave backside defenders unblocked because the play moves too quickly for them to reach the other side of the field. Here, however, Cox blows the play-side up.
“Obviously, it’s really tough to set the edge from a 3-technique,” Beau Allen said, “but he does a great job there making the running back cutback three yards in the backfield.”
Later in the game, Cox tees up another one of his teammates for a tackle-for-loss. This time, he pushed the center five yards into the backfield, forcing the back to bounce outside and into the arms of Vinny Curry behind the line of scrimmage.
Cox set Curry up for a couple of other tackles in the game, because Cox quickly shed his blocker and forced the cutback.
“Honestly, that’s just the same thing he always does: He’s disruptive and he makes the running back cutback. He doesn’t get the stats, but all of these plays are similar because he’s very disruptive and just does a great job of wreaking havoc,” Allen said. “He doesn’t necessarily get credit for that production, but it’s obviously an important part of our defense. Everyone else really appreciates that.”
So has Cox played up to his contract? No.
Then he’s been a big disappointment? Well, no.
Too often people take things to one extreme or another, and opinions of Cox’s performance is a great example. While I’d be surprised if you could find anyone who thinks Cox has been playing like the third-best defender in the NFL, it’s very reasonable to say he’s played at a Pro Bowl level.
There are things he can do to elevate his game, of course. Eliminating costly 15-yard personal foul penalties would be a good start. The top defensive tackles in the NFL are often among the most penalized because of their aggressiveness (Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh rank above Cox this season), but even Schwartz noted the flags have been avoidable.
Still, when searching for answers about why the Eagles are 5-6 or identifying which guys aren’t close to playing up to their contracts, I wouldn’t put Cox near the top of either of those lists.