Danny Woodhead, Derek Cox a tale of two offseason signings

San Diego Chargers running back Danny Woodhead (39) runs with the ball during the first half against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

The San Diego Chargers turnaround from 2012 to 2013 hasn’t been as pronounced as the strides made by Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs, but it’s safe to say that the Chargers have exceeded expectations and are doing an excellent job of building the team in the new regime. Mike McCoy and Tom Telesco are two of the game’s most innovative minds, and both have shown that ever since signing on. McCoy’s achievements can be seen in the play of Philip Rivers and the Chargers offense, but you have to go back to the offseason to take a look at what Telesco has done to build this team. Keenan Allen was an uber-important draft pick, the Dwight Freeney signing was working to absolute perfection before his injury, King Dunlap has come out of nowhere to become a key part of this team, and Danny Woodhead has been everything the Chargers hoped for.

The proof is in the record, too, even though Rivers’s MVP-caliber season has covered up for some massive holes on defense that desperately need to be filled up in the offseason. One of those holes has been created by one of the few mistakes that Telesco made this offseason, and it’s a move that isn’t really a mistake, but rather a massively disappointing season from cornerback Derek Cox. The Chargers signed Cox thinking that he would immediately be a solid starting corner, but he has been awful instead of adding stability and credibility to the Chargers pass defense, which is among the worst in the NFL.

So while the Chargers have genuinely been impressive in this bounce-back season under Telesco and McCoy, they still have plenty of questions to answer. After an offseason in which many moves were made by this organization, no two free agent signings stand out more on opposite sides of the spectrum than the signings of Danny Woodhead and Derek Cox. Although Dunlap has been the bigger surprise than Woodhead, Woodhead is an “opposite”, because he is the “big-name” (neither he nor Cox are truly big names, but they are much bigger names than Dunlap) free agent acquisition who has actually panned out.

Let’s start with Woodhead. The New England Patriots did what they could to keep the fan-favorite, all-purpose back in Foxboro, but they soon realized that they had to pull out of their bidding war against the New York Jets, who famously owned Woodhead before he became a mini-star in New England. The Patriots decided to quit pursuing Woodhead, because they knew that they had a potentially better all-purpose back in Shane Vereen, so they were unwilling to pay as much as the more-needy Chargers and Jets.

The Chargers swooped in and signed Woodhead, and the rest is history. The decision to sign Woodhead immediately looked like an excellent one for the Chargers, because they desperately needed a No. 2 RB in their offense, especially one with Woodhead’s amazing pass-catching qualities. They needed a top-flight No. 2 option behind the inconsistent Ryan Mathews, who has been excellent this year after a slow start to the season (I’m sure adding Woodhead helped Mathews by alleviating pressure off of him, since Mathews never had a No. 2 compliment like Woodhead before). The Chargers also realized that they needed a high-end third-down back and pass-catching RB, since their offensive line, which is better than once thought, was awful at the time. They knew that Woodhead would be an excellent safety valve option on screens for Rivers, especially due to his importance in New England on third downs. The offensive line was responsible for Rivers’s decline, and the combination of better blocking, better coaching, and Woodhead have greatly helped Rivers morph back into a top-five QB.

As it stands right now, Danny Woodhead has an outstanding 66 receptions and six touchdown receptions on the season, and he’s also chipped in with two rushing touchdowns. Woodhead’s yards per carry averages are usually low, because he gets his work done as a situational back. He’s one of the best RBs at moving the chains and is definitely “clutch” due to his receiving ability and ability to convert on key downs. In New England, he became famous among diehard fans for always seeming to come up with the first down, no matter the down or distance.

Woodhead has been a smashing success for the San Diego Chargers, and that doesn’t come as a surprise. But what does surprise most people deeply tuned into the NFL is the horrendous play of cornerback Derek Cox, who was a solid corner for the Jacksonville Jaguars. He never seemed to get burned often in Jacksonville and was one of their best players, but they had to let him go due to cost. The Chargers gave him a long-term commitment of four years and $20 million, but $5 million is a team-friendly annual amount. Cox’s deal hinged on his ability to consistently perform throughout the contract, but he’s been anything but consistent (unlike Woodhead) in his first season on the other side of the United States.

Cox has been benched a number of times for poor play this season, and I don’t think he’s ever played a legitimately good game this season. That’s alarming, since consistency in coverage marked his time with the Jaguars. His total of seven passes defended seems solid on the surface, but that total is completely outdone by his huge struggles in coverage. According to the Pro Football Focus, the 27-year-old has allowed an unseemly 15.2 yards per reception in coverage, and quarterbacks are feasting on him for an average of 9.4 yards per attempt against. Also concerning is the fact that he’s allowed four touchdowns, and PFF even has him tallied at just four passes defended instead of the seven recorded on the stat sheet. In total, Cox has allowed a ghastly 106.4 QB Rating this year.

While those numbers can be manipulated, it’s evident that the tape backs up the fact that Derek Cox has been awful this year. He’s been targeted 65 times this season, and the Chargers have mercifully been restricting his snaps significantly ever since a third benching against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 12 (he was getting beat repeatedly by Donnie Avery, of all people).

I’ve always been a fan of Cox’s, and I praised him as an underrated free agent buy this past offseason. It’s easy to criticize Telesco and the Chargers in hindsight for signing Cox due to the CB’s struggles, but this is more about Cox than the team. There is little doubt that Cox was a solid player in Jacksonville, and the Chargers deal to sign him was honestly quite sound financially. No, the issue here is the fact that Cox has been a surprising disappointment, and he’s surprised more people than just those in the Chargers organization.

The good news is that one year does not make up an entire player’s career, so there’s certainly a solid shot that Cox regains his previous form and has a great 2014 year and becomes the guy the Chargers wanted as their No. 1 CB. It might not happen if he keeps playing like he has this season, but Cox has the track record of a good corner in this league. Hopefully he can bounce back and I am going to remain very optimistic that he can, but, for now, he is one of the biggest free agent disappointments of this year.

Topics: Danny Woodhead, Derek Cox, Notes And Analysis, San Diego Chargers

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  • Gunnar Martin

    True that. Woody has turned out to be the best signing of the offseason, and Cox may have turned out to be the worst. Have to wonder what happened to all of Cox’s skill, technique, and consistency. He’s the polar opposite of what he was a year ago. He’ll be cut shortly after this season ends. Oh well, still really like the direction the Chargers organization is going.

    • http://www.musketfire.com/ Joe Soriano

      Gunnar, I disagree with your statement on cutting Cox, because you can’t give up on a player after just one bad year, especially after they have invested solid money in him. His issues have been technique-related this year, so the Chargers need to work with him on that this offseason. He has been a huge disappointment this season, but the Chargers can’t give up on him now.

      As for the Chargers overall direction, only a raging cynic could criticize it.

      • Gunnar Martin

        See: Meachem, Robert.

        Yes, he could be better next year, but we don’t have the depth or the time to risk it. And even if his technique improved, it is still easy to see that his overall athleticism and skills have declined in the last year. Plus, we can save some 4 million or so in cap space if we let him go before March. It’s just not worth it to hang on to him.

  • arnie

    Great article Joe. We all had high hopes for this season, but we never know until the games are played that we know what we have. I think the Chargers are going to give Cox another oppurtunity, next season, to prove he is what they expected him to be. On the flip side, I believe Woodhead needs an extension to his two year deal.

    • http://www.musketfire.com/ Joe Soriano

      Thanks, arnie. Honestly, the Chargers would be foolish to give up on Cox after just one season, particularly given his track record and contract. Hopefully the Chargers can indeed keep Woodhead for the foreseeable future, because he’s already become a staple in that offense. Cox is still the most talented CB in SD, so they can’t afford to give up on him.