The Eagles hope that Fletcher Cox wraps up running backs and quarterbacks the way he wrapped up NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in a bear hug when he stepped onstage Thursday night at the NFL draft.
Instead of the usual handshake or quick hug, the 6-foot-4, 298-pound Cox embraced Goodell … and wouldn’t let go. If this were the NBA or NHL, the enthusiastic Cox may have squeezed the life out of the diminutive David Stern or Gary Bettman.
The speculation before the draft was that Cox, a defensive tackle from Mississippi State, was the player the Eagles had targeted as their first choice. The problem was that it was unlikely Cox would be available at No. 15, when the Eagles were scheduled to make their selection.
In order to select Cox, the Eagles would likely have to move up to get him. The questions concerned how high they would have to move up to get him and how much it would cost.
Good fortune fell the Eagles’ way when no defensive linemen were among the first 10 picks. Carolina, picking ninth, was considered a possible destination for Cox, but the Panthers opted for Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly instead.
“When he started falling, to be honest with you, we got excited,” Eagles head coach Andy Reid said.
Remember, honesty isn’t always the primary policy during the draft. Every team says it can’t believe the player they wanted all along was available when they picked. In this case, however, it appears the often-disingenuous Reid is telling the truth.
“We were able to kind of hang in there and see how things fell,” Reid said. “We could be patient – to a point.”
Reid said he thought Cox was a top six or seven pick. The Eagles either weren’t willing or able to trade up before the Panthers’ pick. Or, perhaps, one of the ex-Eagles assistants on Carolina’s staff assured the Birds they were taking Kuechly.
The Chiefs, who had the No. 11 pick, needed a defensive lineman. But the Chiefs play a 3-4 alignment, which made it more likely they would select Memphis nose tackle Dontari Poe (6-3, 335) than Cox.
Once the Chiefs selected Poe, the Eagles aggressively made their move. They traded a fourth-round pick and sixth-round pick to the Seahawks in exchange for switching positions in the first round. (The Seahawks reached for West Virginia linebacker Bruce Irvin at No. 15.) The Eagles then got the man they wanted all along.
“I knew they were interested in me,” Cox said, “but I didn’t know they would trade up to get me.”
Cox is the fifth defensive lineman selected by the Eagles among their last eight first-round picks. The others were Jerome McDougle (No. 15 in 2003), Mike Patterson (No. 31, 2005), Brodrick Bunkley (No. 14, 2006) and Brandon Graham (No. 13, 2010). The Eagles also selected two offensive linemen during this time, Shawn Andrews (No. 16, 2004) and Danny Watkins (No. 21, 2011).
“If you can perform up front, whether it’s the offensive line or defensive line, you make everyone else better,” Reid said. “That’s just the way it works.”
Cox’s quickness should improve the Eagles’ pass rush up the middle. Defensive ends Trent Cole and Jason Babin pressure the quarterback with quick outside speed in the Eagles’ wide-9 alignment. The Eagles hope Cox can, along with Cullen Jenkins, provide penetration in the middle of the line, preventing the quarterback from stepping up in the pocket to avoid the outside rushers.
Cox could also move outside and line up as a defensive end, according to Reid. That versatility could help Cox in the Eagles’ system, which features the frequent rotation of linemen. But expect him to be in the defensive tackle mix with Jenkins, Patterson, Antonio Dixon and Derek Landri.
Among the adjectives Reid and defensive line coach Jim Washburn used to describe Cox were intelligent, strong and quick. Cox ran the 40-yard dash in 4.79 seconds at the NFL combine.
“He’s one of those rare kids at that size who can run like that,” Reid said.
Washburn, who said that Cox is quick, athletic and has good coordination between his hands and feet, issued a cautionary note regarding Cox, who had just five sacks last season at Mississippi State.
“He’s a better prospect than he is a player right now,” Washburn said.
Here’s one other cautionary note. The last two times the Eagles have traded up to select a defensive lineman, the results were not good. They traded up to No. 15 in 2003 to select Miami defensive end McDougle. Two years ago, they traded up to No. 13 to select Michigan defensive end Graham, who hasn’t made much impact – both before and after the serious knee injury he sustained during the second half of his rookie season.
There’s no denying that Cox filled a need. The middle of the Eagles’ defense struggled last season. They filled the middle linebacker void by trading for DeMeco Ryans. They hope Cox improves their play at defensive tackle. A safety or another linebacker may be on their radar in the second or third round Friday or during Saturday’s later rounds (4-7).
The Eagles continued to address their defensive problems on the second day of the draft. First, they continued their makeover of their linebacking corp by selecting inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks of California with the 46th overall pick. Kendricks (5-11, 239) is built like a fire hydrant. Along with Fletcher Cox and DeMeco Ryans, Kendricks adds bulk to a team needing to get better at stopping the run. He also will be counted upon to cover tight ends.
The Eagles then traded down eight spots, sending pick no. 51 to the Packers in exchange for switching spots in the second round, pocketing a fourth-round pick in the deal. With pick no. 59, Eagles selected Marshall defensive end Vinny Curry, a pass rushing specialist who may also line up as a third-down linebacker.
The Eagles finally picked an offensive player in the third round. They selected Arizona quarterback Nick Foles (6-5, 243). Foles is said to have a very strong arm and an unflappable temperament, but poor mobility. If Foles makes the team, that could be bad news for backup Mike Kafka, unless the Eagles are content to have two inexperienced quarterbacks backing up the often-injured Michael Vick.
On Saturday, the Eagles selected Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykins in the fourth round (123rd overall), Purdue offensive tackle Dennis Kelly in the fifth round (153rd), and Iowa WR Marvin McNutt and Miami guard Brandon Washington in 6th round with the 194th and 200th overall picks, respectively. The Eagles closed out their draft by selecting Kansas State running back Bryce Brown in the seventh round (229th).