Fletcher Cox was the 12th overall pick in 2012. The Eagles drafted him to be the under-tackle in their 4-3. His job was to fly off the ball and create havoc in the opposing backfield. Cox had 5.5 sacks, 5 TFLs and a FF in his rookie campaign. He looked like he could be a star player.
And then came the 3-4.
Chip Kelly took over the Eagles and switched from the 4-3 to the 3-4. Making matters worse, he and Bill Davis went with a 2-gap system, meaning Cox could no longer attack off the ball. His job was to engage blockers, hold his ground, find the ball and then go after it. And all of that takes place in 1.5 to 2 seconds.
Cox was drafted to attack and make plays. His ability to penetrate and be disruptive is what made him a special talent. The change in systems had to be borderline torturous for Cox. This would be the equivalent of a writer going from Mad Magazine to The National Review.
As you would expect, things were kinda bumpy. Cox got off to a slow start. He did have 2 sacks in the first 3 games, but his run defense was sloppy and his overall play was inconsistent. Cox kept working on the new techniques and got better as the season went along. Chip Kelly really praised him after the second Skins game.
“What you’re seeing out of Fletcher is we’re just watching him grow,” Kelly said. “You forget that he’s still a really, really young player. Everybody on our d-line is a young player. I think he’s getting acclimated. For him, he’s getting a change in systems, a change in coaches, and really starting to grasp and what we’re asking him to do. But I think his performance and what he did on Sunday was outstanding. He’s starting to feel more comfortable in what we’re asking him to do, and our coaches are putting hin in better positions.”
Something interesting occurred to me the other day when doing some research. Cox came into the league at a very young age. He is just 23 years old right now. He’ll turn 24 in December. Reggie White was 23 when he played his first season for the Eagles, back in 1985. White also had a December birthday (the 13th for Fletch and the 19th for Reggie).
I’m not saying that Cox is going to be the next Reggie, but his best years are ahead of him. We really don’t know how good he will be. Reggie was lucky that he got to play in systems that fit his skills. That helped him to maximize his talents. Cox isn’t as lucky, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still be an impact player.
Here are a couple of great videos from PE.com on Cox and that Skins game.
Cox is a really gifted athlete who can still be a special player. One thing that will help him is continuity. He played in one system in 2011 (college), another in 2012 as a rookie and a completely new one in 2013. This is the first time in a while he’s had the same coaches and the same system. That should help Cox to hone his technique and become better from a technical standpoint. He has all the natural ability in the world.
If the coaches can get Cox to marry up his natural ability and his technical skills, he could become a dominant DL. That doesn’t mean it will happen right away, if at all. You have to be patient with players who are in the 2-gap 3-4. It just isn’t natural to read plays. Big guys want to fly off the ball and attack. It takes time for them to really build up 2-gap skills.
I also think part of that transition is dealing with their instincts. You can’t just “see ball, get ball”. There is a certain way things have to be done.
If Cox can take a big step forward this year, that would help the defense in a huge way.
* * * * *
Geoff Mosher wrote about the Eagles young DL this week. You can tell that Thornton, Cox and Logan have a bit of a chip on their shoulders after the playoff loss to the Saints. Those guys took a lot of blame, some of it warranted, but they remain confident in themselves and each other.
There is no shame in losing to the Saints and getting run on wasn’t all the fault of the DL. Those guys should be confident. They showed a lot of potential and could become a very good trio of players this season.