The Jaguars’ offense was arguably the worst in the league–hindering any chance of team success–but the defense had the seventh-highest PFF rating in 2011. Things looked good at most positions for Jacksonville, with one major exception: cornerback. Thanks to injuries at the position, seven different players started at cornerback in 2011. With almost everyone returning and the additions of Andre Branch and Aaron Ross, there is reason for optimism for a great defense in 2012.
One of the starting cornerbacks who didn’t complete the season was Derek Cox. For many of our Secret Superstars, we look at role players who don’t see every snap, but do their job so well that they deserve recognition and more playing time. Cox, on the other hand, started Week 1 of his rookie year and over the last year-and-a-half only injuries have kept him out of the lineup.
The reason Derek Cox is a secret is likely in line with the fact that in 2009 he had the season’s worst PFF coverage rating -16.4. However, in the time since, he has improved immensely and, if remains healthy, his stardom won’t be a secret much longer.
Rookie and Sophomore Blunders
Cox was selected in the third round of the 2009 draft after playing college ball at William & Mary. The Jaguars traded up to add him, and inserted him in the lineup across from Rashean Mathis by the start of the season. Typically over the years, Mathis has lined up at left cornerback and Cox on the right, although in some games Mathis will take the opponent’s No. 1 with Cox over the opposite outside receiver.
In his first four games, he allowed 86, 74, 101, and 91 yards, respectively. This included games where Kevin Walter of Houston and Steve Breaston of Arizona had more catches and yards than their corresponding No. 1’s, Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald. In Week 4, the Titans’ game plan when passing was clearly to target Cox as he was thrown at on 17 of Tennessee’s 42 throws.
To some, his rookie year didn’t look so bad because he had four interceptions and seven passes defended. However, only Chris Johnson of Oakland and Vontae Davis of Miami allowed more receiving yards in 2009. Cox also allowed six touchdowns which helped lead to the year-worst PFF coverage rating he managed, which was also the third-lowest we have seen in our four years of grading players.
Despite his rookie struggles, he opened 2010 as a starter against the Denver Broncos. While covering Brandon Lloyd and Eddie Royal for most of the day, he allowed eight of the nine balls thrown his way to be caught for 140 yards and a touchdown. In contrast, the rest of the team allowed 13 catches on 22 throws for 155 yards, an interception and four passes defended. In the fourth quarter, Cox was benched in favor of 2007 fifth-round pick David Jones. For the following five games Jones kept the starting job.
Successful Second Chance
Cox returned to the starting lineup in Week 7 of the 2010 season against the Chiefs. He allowed a 6-yard touchdown catch, but defended the only other ball thrown his way. He had the best game of his young career the following week against the Cowboys with two interceptions, helping the Jaguars get a victory and earning a PFF rating he’s only bettered twice since. After the bye week we saw two games similar to what we saw from Cox in his rookie season, but from Week 12 on, we saw a star.
In the Week 12 game against the Giants, he allowed just one catch for 18 yards. The following week just two catches with an interception and a pass defended. In the Week 15 game against the Colts he had as many passes defended as passes allowed with two each. He added another interception in the Week 16 game against the Redskins to make it four for the year. Throughout 2010 he lined up at right cornerback regardless of which wide receiver he was across from. Despite that early-season benching, Cox did enough to show he was worthy of the starting job going into 2011.
Cox opened 2011 on a high note, defending one of the three Titan passes thrown his way while the other two fell incomplete. This was a huge improvement on his first game against Tennessee, as well as the previous season’s opener, but he didn’t finish the game and a chest injury caused him to miss Week 2. He played in Week 3 against the Panthers, but then proceeded to miss the next three games with a groin injury.
He made his return in Week 7, where he allowed just a 2-yard catch against the Ravens despite being thrown at six times. The following two games he was again thrown at six times each, but just allowed five catches in the two games combined. In his last game of the season against the Browns, he was thrown at twice and didn’t allow a catch. Unfortunately, a knee injury kept him out for the remainder of the 2011 season.
Reasons for Optimism
While injuries kept him off the field far too much in 2011, he has been playing at a great level over his past 12 games. For comparison, here are the Top 5 cornerbacks in 2011 in terms of coverage rating, and what each of them have been able to do over their last 12 games with significant action as well as Cox:
While he has allowed a lower catch rate and fewer yards over the 12-game stretch, he hasn’t been making the big plays that other cornerbacks have. The five corners have averaged 14.2 combined INT’s and PD’s in that span, Cox had eight.
While Cox has the benefit of having Rashean Mathis for another year, Mathis isn’t getting younger and soon Cox will be the one to line up at left cornerback and at times shadow the opponent’s elite receiver. Until Mathis leaves, the Jaguars’ defense will benefit from having both players on the field and as long as Cox can stay healthy, he could be the difference between a very good defense and a great one.