By Chad Berman and Alex Pacione
Now that the NBA Finals are over and everyone’s ecstatic that the Golden State Warriors endured a more ignominious collapse than Greece’s economy, it’s time to shift our focus to America’s favorite son: football. We already can’t wait for football season to start, and we’re sure neither can you.
On June 14, the Philadelphia Eagles and Pro Bowl defensive lineman Fletcher Cox agreed on a six-year, $103 million contract with $63 million guaranteed—the most ever guaranteed money for a non-quarterback in NFL history. Through our copious and meticulous research, we found that if he so desires, Cox can now go halfsies on an MLS franchise with someone, something he probably only hoped for in his wildest dreams. Dreams really do come true, Fletcher.
While this is a supremely massive contract for a player most casual fans probably haven’t even heard of, Cox’s value is immense and well worth the price tag for the Eagles. Cox is undeniably and surreptitiously one of the best defensive players in the NFL and will be for years to come. He doesn’t make flashy plays and isn’t a shameless self-promoter like J.J. Watt (and also isn’t anywhere near as irritating on social media), and he doesn’t grab headlines like Ndamokung Suh (Although, stepping on people isn’t exactly the kind of notoriety NFL players dream about when they’re kids.) The Eagles clearly value Cox, as they reached this agreement with one year still remaining in his rookie contract (He’s in his fifth-year option now.) Cox was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in 2017, so Philadelphia essentially had to pay Cox whatever he demanded because you simply don’t let a franchise player test the market and potentially walk. Cox’s contract is undeniably enormous, but he’s well worth it.
First of all, Cox is only 25 years old and hasn’t even entered his prime yet. He’s a 6’4”, 300-pound beast with a ludicrous motor for someone his size who wreaks havoc in the middle of the field. He had 9.5 sacks and 11 tackles for a loss last season. While 9.5 sacks aren’t inherently eye-popping (same with Cox’s admirable but not insane 22.0 total career sacks), Cox has been playing in a 3-4 two-gap defensive scheme for the past three seasons under former defensive coordinator Bill Davis, which makes his sack total more impressive than it appears. Essentially, instead of focusing on attacking gaps and penetrating into the backfield, 3-4 defensive linemen are tasked with defending the gap on either side of their respective offensive linemen.
It’s not a system designed to allow Cox to flourish as a pass-rusher. Davis’ scheme put more of the onus on his linebackers to get to the quarterback. However, it was Cox’s disruption up front that allowed the Eagles’ linebackers, such as Connor Barwin, Vinny Curry, and Brandon Graham, to be freed up enough to get to the quarterback. Despite not being tasked with pass rushing, and even without the J.J. Watt-esque sack totals, Cox was still successful at hurrying the quarterback, as he ranked fourth in the league last season with 33 quarterback pressures. It’s clear that even in a system not tailored to allow him to get to the quarterback, Cox still thrived at doing so.
Thankfully, this season, in new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 scheme, Cox will be playing in a system much more suited to his unique skill set. Technically, he played in a 4-3 in 2012, his rookie season, but he was as green as Snoop Dogg’s nightstand at that point. Despite being a rookie, he still managed 5.5 sacks that year, his highest total until last season. Moving back to the 4-3 as a veteran will free up Cox to play a more aggressive, attacking style of defense. Getting upfield fast and into the backfield is critical for linemen in Schwartz’s defense. No longer will Cox be babysitting offensive linemen so that linebackers can get to the quarterback. Schwartz plays a blitzkrieg, balls-to-the-pavement style of defense. It’s the Tet Offensive (or more fittingly, Defensive) of defensive systems, except in this case, America wins every time. Cox’s natural explosiveness and power seem destined to thrive in such a scheme. Cox was an All-Pro in a 3-4 system, so theoretically, he should be even more dominant (a scary thought given how impactful he’s already been) in a 4-3. Similar players like Suh and Albert Haynesworth were able to excel in Schwartz’s defense, so Cox should see similar results.
There’s a caveat to every fantasy, though (like how neither of us will ever date Taylor Swift because she doesn’t live in New Jersey—the only thing holding us back). Let’s not forget that Philadelphia gave up five picks to get quarterback Carson Wentz in this year’s draft. Some critics have argued that was too steep a price to pay at a time when there were myriad holes on the defensive side of the ball that could’ve and should’ve been addressed with those picks.
The Eagles could’ve measurably improved their depth on defense with said picks and also with the extra cap space they would’ve had if they hadn’t extended Cox. Since legendary safety Brian Dawkins left the team after the 2008 season, the Eagles have been haunted by their secondary. And not an innocuous Casper-the-Friendly-Ghost haunting, but like a brutal Amityville Horror-style blood-bath of a haunting. The Nnamdi Asomugha experiment was a bigger failure than Charles Barkley’s tenure as Weight Watchers spokesman, as was the Bryon Maxwell smile-fest. Those five lost draft picks, coupled with the aforementioned additional cap space, could’ve gone a long way to remedy the Eagles’ dire situation in their secondary, a secondary that ranked 28th in total and per game passing yards allowed (4,273 and 267.1, respectively) last season. Philadelphia was also the 22nd ranked team in turnover differential with a rating of minus-five.
Additionally, while the secondary has struggled with consistent coverage more so than Boost Mobile, the front seven has actually been quite stellar. In 2014, the Eagles finished fifth in the league in yards allowed per carry (3.7) and third over the last eight games (3.5). Their 49 sacks were second in the league, trailing only the Buffalo Bills’ 54. However, in 2015, the run defense dropped off quite precipitously. The Eagles did rank 10th in total tackles last season with 1,094, but they were dead last in total and average rushing yards allowed per game (2,153 and 134.6, respectively) and 17th in total sacks (37). However, the linebacker corps was a mess last season. Mychal Kendricks was nursing a hamstring injury for most of the year, and even though he only missed three games, he wasn’t his usual athletic self when he did play. Rookie stud Jordan Hicks missed eight games with a torn pectoral muscle. DeMeco Ryans was just glad to make it through a season with all of his body parts attached to their proper places and was released in the offseason. Kiko Alonso only played in 11 games, and other than his insane leaping interception grab in the end zone in the first game of the season, he looked like Bill Cosby’s first male victim when on the field and was traded to the Miami Dolphins in the offseason. The linebacker rotation also prevented any of them from finding their groove, especially Kendricks. With a healthy Kendricks and Hicks, the Eagles’ linebacker corps should be much improved in the upcoming 2016 season.
Along with Kendricks and Hicks, Barwin, Graham, Curry, and Bennie Logan are all very good foundational pieces of the front seven. So, it could be argued that, for a fraction of the price, the Eagles could’ve plugged another player in for Cox and still have maintained a solid front seven. The team could’ve tried to re-sign defensive tackle Cedric Thornton, who played primarily as an outside run-blocker under Davis, but was a more than serviceable player and a workhorse. This offseason, he signed with the Dallas Cowboys for $18 million over four years and will be moving back to the interior of a 4-3 scheme. Also, judging by Suh’s similar contract ($60 million guaranteed) it just seems that tying up that much money in a defensive lineman isn’t worth it. The Dolphins are constricted by that contract as the Eagles may be by Cox’s in a few years.
Despite those potential drawbacks, the move was the right one and the only one for the Eagles. You don’t let a franchise player in his prime test the free-agent market and potentially sign with another team.
Moreover, despite the critics, the Eagles theoretically improved their secondary by signing safety Rodney McLeod and cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks, and by drafting safety Jalen Mills, who could be the steal of the draft in Round 7. None of the above were flashy moves, but they should considerably improve the secondary. McLeod will almost definitely be the starting safety opposite Malcolm Jenkins and should be impactful from Day 1. McKelvin could and should compete with second-year corner Eric Rowe and veteran Nolan Carroll for one of the starting defensive back spots. Brooks has played under Schwartz in Buffalo before and provides solid depth. Philadelphia also has prospects like JaCorey Shepherd, Randall Evans, and Jaylen Watkins who are young and haven’t seen enough game action to effectively discern their ceilings.
Those are all of course best-case scenarios, but this secondary will almost certainly be better than last year’s. We realize that’s like saying the song “Stairway to Heaven” is more artistically significant than “Call Me Maybe,” but sometimes blatancy is a good thing. So, the Eagles should be very satisfied with anchoring their defense around a young, absurdly skilled defensive talent like Fletcher Cox despite sacrificing a truckload of money—not to mention a multitude of draft picks and potential defensive depth for Wentz. Players with Cox’s skill set don’t come around very often, so, for once, this was money well spent by general manager Howie Roseman.