By Peter Gleason
Eagles prime-time defensive tackle Fletcher Cox had an up and down 2019, owing largely to his recovery from offseason toe surgery.
But he bristled when he was asked last week about the future:
“I definitely haven’t hit my ceiling, man,” Cox told the Athletic after Pro Bowl practice on Thursday.
“I had some ups and downs,” Cox said. “I started slow. But picked it up toward the end. My best game of the year was probably the playoffs.”
The offseason surgery was a plausible explanation. Cox didn’t take a single rep in offseason workouts, training camp or preseason. The first month of the season essentially became his training camp.
“The main thing going into the 2020 season is understanding what he’s coming from off this season, first time being injured with a severe injury … and seeing him be humbled in that arena, not able to do the normal Fletch type of things as far as his offseason training and being productive and the frontrunner throughout the year,” said Deon Hodges, a sports performance specialist at Pro Trusted who trains Cox. “Going into 2020, we had some serious talks about stepping back and analyzing everything that’s taking place. Just recalibrating. Back to the basis of everything is saying, ‘This is how we’re going to approach it, understanding where you are in your career and understanding there’s a dominant force left in the tank.’ You saw it the last few games, that he can still take over a game.”
Cox finished the season with 3 1/2 sacks, his fewest since 2013. His other pass-rush stats were the worst of his career. According to Sportradar, he had 22 pressures — half as many as last season and a career low. He totaled 11 hurries and six knockdowns. Cox had a sack or quarterback hit on 1.7 percent of his defensive snaps, his worst percentage since 2014, down from 5.37 percent in 2018 and 3.71 percent in 2017. (These stats doesn’t take into account Cox’s production on running downs.)
“Turn the tape on,” Cox said. “That’s all I’ve got to say, turn the tape on. … You’ll see the difference-maker I am.”
“I don’t think I see anything slowing him down,” said center Jason Kelce, who has practiced against Cox throughout the defensive lineman’s career, including last week at the Pro Bowl.
Said Kelce: “You could have anybody coach them — and they’ve been fortunate to have great coaches. You can have anybody playing next to them — and they’ve been fortunate to have great players next to them. But at the end of the day, those two would have been Hall of Fame talents, no matter what team they ended up on.”
Kelce called Cox a “unique specimen” because he’s a “physical freak — strong, quick, everything you’d want,” but also “incredibly intelligent” with his ability to anticipate during the play.
And that’s all true. But the Eagles cannot afford a decline in production.
“Everybody talks about the sacks,” Kelce said, “but I can tell you this: The Seahawks coaches (at the Pro Bowl) and everybody here still respect and know the player he is.”
Anyone who watched the wild-card round matchup with Seattle saw how Cox can impact a game, even if statistics didn’t show just how dominant he was that day. He was credited with one pressure and two tackles for losses. Yet if the Eagles could bottle that performance up and get it every week from Cox, his 2020 season will be among the best of his career.
“That playoff game shows it to you,” Cox said. “There’s no ceiling. I’ve got to build on what I’ve been doing for the last eight years.”