2020 Season Preview: Cox, Slay To Jockey For Defensive MVP Honors
This is the eighth story of a lengthy series from now until the start of training camp by Geoff Mosher and Andrew DiCecco previewing the Eagles' 2020 season. Each weekday, Mosher and DiCecco will give their viewpoint on a specific topic. Today's category:
Andrew's Choice: Fletcher Cox, defensive tackle
In his first four seasons in Philadelphia, Jim Schwartz has assembled defenses of varying talent levels.
The veteran defensive mind had previously been deprived of an elite cornerback throughout his Eagles tenure but finally has one at his disposal in Darius Slay. Slay, who can effectively erase one side of the field and shadow the opposition’s top target, will give Schwartz some much-needed flexibility in his play-calling.
While I anticipate Slay performing at an All-Pro level, it will take more than one substantial upgrade to revive the porous Eagles’ secondary. Slay’s presence alone will likely force teams to look elsewhere in the passing game. However, with so much uncertainty at the position, it’s hard to say how impactful the acquisition will be.
As beneficial as the Slay signing was, the sizable investment dedicated to the trenches leads me to believe that Fletcher Cox will return to form and flourish as the Eagles’ Defensive MVP.
Cox, who has played next to a revolving door of interior lineman over the past two seasons, now fronts the strongest defensive tackle trio in football. While the 29-year-old defensive tackle occupied 1,629 snaps over the past two seasons out of necessity, he lacked his signature burst during the stretch runs.
The Eagles’ signed 27-year-old Javon Hargrave to a lucrative free-agent deal in March to play opposite Cox for the foreseeable future. Hargrave, a disruptive interior mauler, has the requisite power to hold the point of attack against the run and routinely collapse the pocket. Coming off a career-high 60-tackle, 4-sack 2019 campaign with the Steelers, Hargrave is just scratching the surface of his ability.
Veteran Malik Jackson returns from a season-ending injury that kept him out of all but one game in 2019. Though Jackson will serve as a key rotational piece in 2020, his explosive traits, pass-rush acumen, and versatility will enable Cox to remain fresh throughout the season.
With a formidable stable of interior lineman to support Cox, the perennial Pro Bowler will see fewer double teams and should feasibly be playing his best football in December and January. A revitalized Cox spells bad news for offensive lineman and quarterbacks, however. The Mississippi State product should have extra fuel to utilize his renowned strength, quickness, and burst to collapse the pocket and move signal-callers off their mark – effectively bolstering the pass rush and minimizing exposure on the back end.
Geoff's Choice: Fletcher Cox, defensive tackle
I tried to convince myself that someone other than Fletcher Cox could be the team's most valuable defensive player. I tried to convince myself it could be Darius Slay, who's made three consecutive Pro Bowls and is easily the best corner Jim Schwartz has had since Schwartz took the defensive coordinator job in 2016. But for a corner to win MVP honors, he usually must excel in the playmaking department. Slay led the NFL with eight picks in 2017 but became victimized by his own reputation. Quarterbacks stayed away from him, and Slay managed just three picks in 2018 and just two last season. He had as many interceptions in 2018 (two) as Sidney Jones and Nate Gerry.
I tried to convince myself it could be Brandon Graham, who's too often judged on sacks instead of the other categories in which he excels. Graham last season piled up more TFLs (15) than J.J. Watt and Yannick Ngakoue. He had more QB hits (17) than DeMarcus Lawrence, Khalil Mack and Ngakoue. He had more solo tackles (35) than Nick Bosa, Aaron Donald and Von Miller. Graham is truly one of the sport's most underrated defensive linemen. But the reality is, he's not better than Cox. And if Graham ever reaches the double-digit sack mark for the first time, some of the credit would go to Cox for collapsing the pocket. I tried to convince myself the best player on the Eagles' defense this year could be a safety, or perhaps a linebacker. Actually, that's a lie. I didn't waste one second trying to rationalize that. Really, the honor could only go to Cox or Slay. They're both top players at their positions and the keys to Schwartz's defense succeeding in 2020 and compensating for youth at the safety and linebacker positions. Last year was considered a down season for Cox, and he still made the Pro Bowl for the fifth straight season, demonstrating the league-wide respect for the 12th overall pick in the 2012 draft. As Andrew noted, the addition of Javon Hargave and a healthier Malik Jackson should ensure that Cox logs fewer snaps this year, which should keep his legs fresh and his production on point.
There just aren't many 310-pound men who move like Cox does, and I'm expecting his 2020 to more resemble 2018, when he secured a career-high 10.5 sacks and finished second to only Donald in QB hits (34) to make All Pro. I'm expecting Cox, once again, to be the most valuable player on the Eagles' defense.
– Geoff Mosher (@geoffmoshernfl) is co-host of the Inside the Birds podcast and staff writer for InsideTheBirds.com. Andrew DiCecco (adicecconfl) is a contributor to InsideTheBirds.com.
Listen to the latest "Inside the Birds" podcast here: