Eagles' Fletcher Cox among highest-graded interior defenders this season
Last season, Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox finished fifth among defensive interior players in Pro Football Focus’ grading, with an 89.9 overall grade bested only by Aaron Donald, J.J. Watt, Ndamukong Suh, and Geno Atkins—pretty elite company.
For his production, Cox was handed a seven-year, $110.79 million contract, including $63 million guaranteed. After a huge pay day, there was no doubt the Eagles’ budding star would receive criticism going forward.
Earlier this season, Cox recorded four sacks in the Eagles’ first four games—the conclusion drawn by most during that span, naturally, was that he was playing well. The only thing that has changed since that span is that the sacks haven’t necessarily shown up on the stat sheet. In reality, Cox’s 537 snaps this season shouldn’t be judged by a single stat, especially one that doesn’t quite capture a pass-rusher’s full impact.
With new head coach Doug Pederson came defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and his scheme. It seemed as though Cox would have more of an opportunity to thrive getting pressure on the quarterback under Schwartz, as he wasn’t asked to two-gap anymore, and only had one gap to control.
In his new role, Cox still has run responsibility, but at its worst, it’s making sure the run goes inside of him if he gets too far upfield—giving the linebacker behind him a huge gap to fill. Lining up primarily at 3-technique—over 50 percent of the time—Cox has done a great job of getting up field, but not hanging the guys behind him out to dry. The jump in QB pressures isn’t necessarily there, but he was already at an impressive level to begin with.
Not all quarterback pressures (hurries, hits, and sacks combined) are created equal, but they are a far better measure of effecting the quarterback than a simple sack total. When looking at all defensive interior players, Cox ranks third in pass-rushing productivity (pressures on a per-snap basis) at 9.9 percent, and has 41 total pressures (third-most among NFL DTs this season).
In Week 5 Fletcher Cox destroyed Lions G Larry Warford so quickly that all Matthew Stafford could do is duck, but Vinny Curry racked up the sack and credit.
This play will mainly be remembered for Curry’s sack. However, when evaluating a defensive player, it’s important to understand that plays like these are still very significant in determining production, as Cox did most of the work.
It was clear that Cox could rush the passer last year, but he also excels in run defense. A lot of his work and value derives from this facet of the game.
This season, Cox has recorded 13 run stops, which even on a per-snap basis, is just 19th (7.1 percent) among NFL defensive tackles alone. Therefore, on the surface, his low tackle number (24 combined, by PFF’s count) makes it seem like he hasn’t been productive.
Here’s an example—from Week 12’s encounter with the Packers—of Cox moving Corey Linsley, a perennial top-10-graded center, 5 yards into the backfield, forcing RB James Starks to move around, and giving Cox’s teammates an opportunity to make a play.
Simply being disruptive against the run is incredibly valuable to a defense—though it may never show up on the stat sheet. Cox has won his matchups in run defense repeatedly in essentially every game this season, while going up against some top-tier guards in Dallas’ Zack Martin, Chicago’s Kyle Long, and Washington’s Brandon Scherff.
One commonly-accepted argument is that star defensive linemen are “constantly” double-teamed, so that’s why it’s harder to gauge their production. Cox, though, just like any other defensive interior player, has not been double-teamed over the course of the season nearly as often as some might think.
Simply put—and contrary to popular sentiment around his performance this season—Fletcher Cox has been a very-good-turned-dominant player for a number of seasons now, without any sort of significant drop in play this season. In fact, Cox is among the three-highest-graded interior defenders in the league entering Week 13, just behind Aaron Donald and Calais Campbell, respectively.