Over the next three weeks leading up to training camp, we’ll be counting down the top 20 most important Eagles for the 2021 season.
2. Fletcher Cox
By Fletcher Cox’s standards, 2020 was a down year.
But maybe it showed us how much Eagles fans have been spoiled by Cox over the last several seasons. Because even if Cox is beginning to decline, he’s still arguably the best player on the Eagles’ entire roster … and he has been for some time.
In 2020, Cox played 15 games and finished with 6.5 sacks, 41 tackles, 9 TFLs and 9 quarterback hits. While it’s fair to say he had a down year, he still had more sacks, tackles and TFLs last year than he did in 2019. And he still went to his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl.
Cox is 30 now and maybe we’ve already seen the best of him in his career, but the folks at ProFootballFocus expect a bounce back season of sorts for Cox in 2021. They have him ranked as the No. 6 interior defensive lineman in the league going into this season.
If he can regain his form, that would be huge for the Eagles in a rebuilding season.
Cox is under contract for this season and next and I understand why it might make sense for the Eagles to entertain a trade possibility to get something in return for Cox if they’re worried about diminishing value. But the fact remains that even in this rebuilding/retooling phase that the Eagles still aim to be competitive. And it’s hard to find a bigger key to their success than the long-time anchor of the defensive line, the guy who takes on double teams, moves the pocket and still has game-wrecking ability.
Since he’s playing in an age with Aaron Donald, who will go down as one of the all-time greats, Cox has often been overlooked. But guess who’s second to Donald in total pressures from an interior lineman over the last five seasons? According to PFF, it’s Cox.
With Cox, we’re seeing a likely Hall of Famer, who even if he’s still slightly past his prime, is still one of the very best in the NFL.
The Eagles’ defensive line, as a whole, is a strength entering this season. And on paper, it sure looks like the interior of that line is very good. After Cox, the Eagles have Javon Hargrave, Hassan Ridgeway, Milton Williams and Marlon Tuipulotu.
But that depth only works as long as Cox is still a monster.
Because while Hargrave is talented, he didn’t have the best first season with the Eagles. Ridgeway has struggled to stay healthy. And Williams and Tuipulotu are both rookies. So even at a position with depth — and, yeah, Brandon Graham can play inside at times too — it only works if Cox is playing at a Pro Bowl level.
Under Jonathan Gannon, the Eagles’ defense will look at least slightly different than it did under Jim Schwartz. In the last five years, the defensive line’s job has been to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. And if a running back was on the way, take him down.
Some changes will be coming.
“We’re going to be an attacking defense but I think you have to also understand, there’s a thousand words out here. We’ve got read-react, we’ve got disruptive,” new defensive line coach Tracy Rocker said this offseason.
“Well, what about situational football? Situational awareness? You’re not going to run the red light.”
Yes, the days of a quasi Wide-9 defensive front are gone, but let’s also realize that the Eagles aren’t all of a sudden going to turn into some two-gapping 3-4. Gannon is still going to run a 4-3 and he’s said he wants to build his defensive scheme around the strengths of his players.
Well, guess what? The biggest strength the Eagles have on defense is still Cox.
So that explains why he doesn’t think all that much will change for him in 2021.
“Basically just the same thing,” Cox said during spring practices. “Just be disruptive. Coaches just want me to go out and be disruptive and just play the style of defense I’m used to playing.”
Of course they do. Because there aren’t many better in the world.
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