The NFC East division boasts a handful of impressive quarterbacks, but the ferocious pass rushers are the ones who should be stealing the headlines.
From DeMarcus Ware to Justin Tuck to Jason Babin, there are plenty of pass pressures to go around in the NFC East. That number will only increase with the arrival of first round pick Fletcher Cox to Philadelphia. Cox is an electric and penetrating defensive tackle with great versatility and possesses the ability to make an instant impact in a rotational role for the Eagles.
Fletcher Cox was one of the most impressive prospects in the 2012 NFL Draft class because of his blend of versatility, strength, athleticism, explosiveness and motor at the defensive tackle position. These traits combined are not commonly seen around at the position because many players tend to have some of the traits while missing others.
His versatility was on display throughout his collegiate career at Mississippi State, where he showed the ability to play not only anywhere along the defensive line but in space as well. There were several instances in which he displayed his freakish abilities, such as against South Carolina and Wake Forest last season.
Against South Carolina, Cox aligned at three-technique, which is across the outside shoulder of either guard, as an under tackle—a position that he naturally fits and arguably where he does his best work.
He also aligned at the five-technique, which is across the outside shoulder of either offensive tackle. He did this in primarily three man fronts, but at times in four man fronts as well.
However, one of the most interesting plays that truly displayed the remarkable athleticism that near-300 pound defensive tackle possesses was against Wake Forest when he hovered over the line of scrimmage in a two point stance prior to the snap.
Defensive tackles typically come downhill after the quarterback whether they are in a two or three point stance, however Cox didn't; he dropped in coverage.
Cox dropped in to coverage as a soft defender in the flats and took away one of the potential targets for the quarterback. He didn't do this often from what I watched of his games, which was many, but he did it on a few occasions and looked comfortable doing so, which must make the screws in defensive coordinator Juan Castillo's start to turn.
Castillo could use multiple fronts in his defense and call a Fire Zone blitz, a five man blitz concept with six defenders in coverage, that utilizes Cox's versatility by dropping him into coverage. Cox would likely drop in a "hot-read" (quick throw area for quarterbacks to throw in when facing a blitz) zone that could potentially lead to a big play for the defense.
Cox's versatility is impressive, but not more than the explosiveness and power that he generates. It's an interesting and impressive blend that not many defensive tackles have. Cox has the ability to generate instant explosiveness off the snap and convert speed to power, which makes him deadly.
An instance of this was against South Carolina when he aligned as a five-technique defensive end in Mississippi State's three man front.
He quickly exploded out of his coiled three-point stance, which enabled him to get a step on the offensive tackle. The tackle was not quick enough to react and because of this, Cox was able to engage first and do damage at the point of attack. He was able to "pop," as coaches call it in football parlance, the blocker and knock him back when he got his hands on him.
After engaging, Cox continued to move his feet quickly, never stopping as is often the case with him, and sunk his hips into the ground to generate lower body power.
The image shows Cox with his hands inside on the breast pads of the blocker and his hips low to the ground, illustrating proper hand use and natural lower body strength. The former is not often the case with him, however, as he's a very raw prospect.
Cox needs to use his hands properly with consistency as well as play with a better base to fully utilize his strength. The position of his legs in the image above indicates his raw footwork, showing his feet close together which would normally knock the athlete off balance, but that is not the case with Cox.
Further, at the conclusion of this play, Cox closed in on the quarterback by throwing the blocker aside, once again showcasing his strength. He is unable to get to the quarterback after being shoved in the back by the dual-reading guard.
Moreover, Cox's motor is an important part of the makeup that the Eagles look for in their defensive players: blue-collar athletes whose motor and determination is simply endless.
This type of player is what the Eagles look for because their "wide-9" scheme, which is really two ends in loose five techniques, places heavy emphasis on pass rushers that are constantly trying to get after the quarterback under the tutelage of legendary defensive line coach Jim Washburn.
Washburn was thrilled to get the Mississippi State product under his wing, who is the ideal fit for the team. "When God made him, he made him to be in this system right here," Washburn said.
Washburn commented further on Cox, saying, "he's a better prospect than player at this point."
What this means is that Cox is very raw as a prospect coming into the NFL because of his aforementioned inconsistent hand use, footwork and pad level.
However despite this, Washburn expects him to make an impact in his rookie season according to Mike Greger of Metro: "He [Washburn] fully expects to instantly add Cox to the rotation in his attacking Wide-9 scheme—and he anticipates he'll be a heavy contributor even as a rookie."
Cox could have a significant impact on pass downs alongside defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins and ends Jason Babin and Trent Cole because he does a great job of penetrating into the backfield.
As the season moves further along, Cox will improve his technique and likely see an increased role that could eventually move him into the starting lineup. With the abundance of pass rush talent in the NFC East division, Cox will likely be overlooked but don't be surprised if Cox steals a few headlines for himself in 2012.
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