Philadelphia Eagles: What about Fletcher Cox?

The Philadelphia Eagles defense added two big names this offseason with the acquisition of Kiko Alonso in the LeSean McCoy trade and the addition of much-needed No. 1 cornerback Byron Maxwell. But even though Alonso and Maxwell are both excellent players in their own rights, the best player on the Eagles defense is Fletcher Cox, who is perhaps the most underrated defensive lineman in the NFL right now. Not many people outside of the Eagles fan base regard Cox as an elite player, but that could quickly change in the near future if he plays as well in 2015 as he did in 2014.

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This offseason we’ve seen three big contracts handed to 3-4 defensive ends. The San Diego Chargers will pay Corey Liuget $51.25 million with $30.477 million in guaranteed money in a five-year extension, the New Orleans Saints are giving elite 2013 pass rusher Cameron Jordan $33.469 million in guaranteed money and $61.969 in total over six years, and the Pittsburgh Steelers recently signed 26-year-old Cameron Heyward to a six-year, $59.2 million contract.

Heyward, Jordan, and Liuget are three of the league’s better 3-4 DEs, and it’s a position that has consistently grown in importance around the league, as reflected by the huge sums of money that these three players are making. Liuget and Heyward are ascending talents, but it’s hard to call either elite. Meanwhile, Jordan is a huge difference-maker as a pass rusher with some solid run defending chops to boot, but he wasn’t at his best last year. And yet, all three of them are set to make bank over the next few seasons, as their teams made it a clear priority to lock them up through their primes.

Those three defensive ends are either 25 or 26 right now, and all of this seemingly random info bodes extremely well for Cox. See, Cox is just 24, and he won’t turn 25 until mid-December. Oh, and he’s also better than Heyward, Jordan, and Liuget, as evidenced by his absolute dominance last season after making good on the big-time hype he received in the offseason from the Eagles coaching staff.

In 2014, Cox recorded four sacks and recovered three fumbles, but where he stood out the most as a third-year pro was in the running game. He finished the year with a career-high 62 tackles ( a more than 20-tackle improvement from his 2013 total), and they weren’t junk tackles either.

Pro Football Focus recorded Cox as having 44 defensive stops, and he tied the ultra-dominant J.J. Watt to lead all 3-4 DEs in total run stops. Only Calais Campbell and Muhammad Wilkerson, who are two of the best players in the game at any position, had a higher Run Stop% than Cox, who, sadly, doesn’t get as much press as either of those two players. Sure, Campbell and Wilkerson are even better than Cox is, but he isn’t far off from those guys and is in that tier as a young talent who is only getting better.

And while Cox’s best work is clearly done in the running game, he isn’t a bad pass rusher either. If you can go beyond the four sacks he recorded last season, you’ll see that he was fifth among all 3-4 defensive ends in total pressures recorded, which is pretty impressive for a guy who weighs 300 pounds.

In a passing league, Heyward and Jordan are two of the best interior pass rushers in the game and understandably earned massive contracts with both players possessing insane upside in that department. Neither are bad run defenders either, which only boosted their value.

Cox is at a bit of a disadvantage since his reputation is based on stopping the run, but his ability to plug up holes, push the pocket, and rack up key tackles and stuffs in the running game cannot be undersold. Like the three defensive ends who have been locked up by their teams this offseason, Cox is a player you can build around, and he’s a guy who can simultaneously make play and do the dirty work as a two-gap defender. He’s a rare talent with great tools and an even better motor, and his consistently improving understanding of the game has made him one of Chip Kelly’s best players.

Nov 27, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA; Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Fletcher Cox (91) tackles Dallas Cowboys running back Joseph Randle (21) in the game at AT&T Stadium. Philadelphia beat Dallas 33-10. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

And yet, Fletcher Cox was once thrown around as potential trade bait for current Tennessee Titans signal-caller Marcus Mariota. That might say more about how much Kelly loves Mariota than anything else, but I’m with Tommy Lawlor on this one: Cox is a guy the Eagles have to pay. I mean, their fifth-lowest yards per carry allowed (3.7) last season has his name written all over it.

I guess what complicates things for the Eagles a bit is the fact that they have plenty of depth on the defensive line with players like Vinny Curry and Cedric Thornton lining up as 3-4 DEs for Billy Davis, but, as Lawlor eloquently points out, none of those guys approach Cox in ability. Again, Cox was easily one of the NFL’s best run defenders last season, only four other 3-4 DEs put more pressure on the quarterback, and he does this all in a difficult two-gap defense.

Since the Philadelphia Eagles made the no-brainer decision to pick up Cox’s fifth-year option, the former 12th overall pick out of Mississippi State is under contract until 2017. With the sky the limit for a 24-year-old player who was one of the best at his position last season in just his third season in the league, the only question is, “How much will the Eagles end up paying for him?”

Nov 10, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Fletcher Cox (91) sacks Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Heyward, Jordan, and Liuget all have contracts that set the bar for what a high-end 3-4 DE will be paid on the open market, and you can bet that Cox, who is younger and has a very good shot at being better, will be gunning for more guaranteed money and max contract value than those three.

This is an issue to monitor after the 2015 season, but if Cox plays even better, then there’s an unfortunate chance that Kelly will be too stingy to pay the man what he wants and would garner on the market. No matter what happens in the future, the Eagles should do what they can to keep him around, even if it means playing a franchise tag game with him in 2017.

The way Cox is rising, it looks like the deal Wilkerson signs will be indicative of the type of money Cox will make. Jordan and Heyward are excellent pass rushers, but Cox, who is obviously no slouch in the passing game himself, has the potential to be more of a Wilkerson-type difference-maker. There’s no guarantee he’ll hit that level, but he clearly seems to be on that track.