Our look at the "big three" first round DT-DEs continues with a long look at Mississippi State's Fletcher Cox who, to my mind, is the safest--and may well be the best--of the three. Indeed, in the race to be the first big defensive lineman off the board, Cox seems to have taken a commanding lead; many draft boards now have him firmly entrenched in the top ten, some as ranking him as high as sixth overall.
Cox's rise makes great sense when you study him more closely. For a man his size (6'4" 298), Cox boast impressive athleticism. This was on display at the Combine, where he ran a 4.79 forty, bench-pressed 225 pounds 30 times,and registered strong short shuttle (4.53) and 3-cone (a Combine-best 7.07) scores. On the field, this ability translates into superb initial quickness, lateral range and speed, which he uses to penetrate as well as to make plays outside the box. He's an exceptional interior pass rusher who uses his long, 34.5-inch arms and foot quickness get off blocks and attach the quarterback. At the same time, he has the strength to anchor against the run, and can shed blocks and make plays between the tackles.
Here he is in action against the best the nation had to offer in 2011: SEC rivals Alabama and South Carolina. Thanks to his performance in games like these, Cox was named first-team All-SEC as a third-year junior. As this suggests, he is still raw; Cox relies too heavily on his natural ability to make plays. Still, he is more polished than the other "big three" defensive tackles. And, he is not only the most NFL-ready, but has considerable upside--his room for growth is comparable to that of the less-refined Brockers and Poe. And he's probably more likely to realize that upside due to his work ethic; Cox is a terrific practice player, and translates that into games, where he works from opening kickoff until final whistle, setting the pace for teammates and wearing down opponents.
The more I read about this player, the more I like. What do scouts think? Find out after the jump...
National Football Post (Wes Bunting): 2nd-rated DE; 27th overall
Possesses an athletic looking frame with a long set of arms, bubble butt, good girth through his lower half and has the frame to get even bigger. Doesn't do a great job sitting into his stance however off the football. Gets a bit upright off the ball in the run game and too often allows defenders to get under his pad level and create a push inside. Has the first step to cross the face of defenders consistently and threaten gaps off the ball inside. Is at his best stopping plays before they start by knifing his way into the backfield and fighting his way through contact. However, gets too upright off the ball allowing defenders to get under his frame and seal him from the action on trap blocks with too much ease. Isn't overly instinctive as well when asked to find the football and takes himself out of his fair share of plays. Also, needs to do a better job getting off the snap count on time.
Has experience both as a three and five technique. When asked to play the perimeter run game does a much better job extending his arms into contact and has the body control to simply fend off blocks and shed through the play. The more space he's in the better off he is because he can use his athleticism to shed. However, inside he tends to get washed up in the action too often vs. the run game. More of a one-gap guy in the pass game. Can cross the face of defenders inside and use his length to keep himself clean. However, he gets upright off the ball, which takes away from his power/balance when trying to fight through contact or slip laterally. Isn't a real sudden pass rusher despite his athleticism. Can side step blocks when stunting from the outside, but through contact his balance/quickness is taken away from him because of pad level. Also, his power on his bull rush is negated because he stands upright into contact, looking to simply lower his head at the point and doesn't keep his legs under him.
Impression: I think his best spot might be as a 34 five technique who is able to penetrate and make plays off the ball. He's raw and needs to learn to play with his pad level lower. However, as a potential five technique he's a guy who has the skill set to earn a starting role.
CBS Sports (Rob Rang): top-rated DT; 7th overall
Pass rush: Good quickness off the snap. Attacks gaps, getting skinny to slip past interior linemen when lining up as a defensive tackle. Enough speed to challenge the shoulders of strong-side tackles when lining up as a defensive end. Does not possess the explosiveness and flexibility to turn the corner efficiently, however, limiting his pass rush potential on the outside. Developing pass rush technique, including a swim move, but does not use this often enough. Relies almost exclusively on his bull rush. Generates an explosive pop to knock his opponent back onto his heels. Possesses the lateral agility to take advantage of the unbalanced offensive lineman to run around him and collapse the pocket.
Run defense: Good size and power, though Cox struggles with leverage, at times. Can be blown off the ball when double-teamed as he currently lacks prototypical width and thickness in his lower body for an interior defender. Cox does appear to have the frame to add an additional 10-15 pounds. Good upper-body strength and quick hands to disengage from the one-on-one block. Penetrates gaps and locates the football quickly. Slides off of blocks to latch onto ballcarriers as they attempt to run by. Alert defender who recognizes the trap block and possesses enough quickness to beat his opponent to the spot. Lacks the sustained speed to chase down ballcarriers, but puts good effort into his lateral pursuit.
Explosion: Varies his burst off the snap, but does not possess true explosiveness in his get-off. Among his best assets, however, is his strong upper body. Attacks blockers with an explosive pop, which allows him to disengage quickly.
Strength: Naturally strong man who is still learning to use his power to his advantage. Good to very good upper-body strength and leg drive to push his opponent deep into the pocket. Good strength as a drag-down tackler, as well. Does negate his own strength, on occasion, due to a high pad level.
Tackling: High effort player who locates the football and pursues laterally and downfield. An effective drag-down tackler due to his upper-body strength. Surprisingly light on his feet showing an ability to adjust to elusive ballcarriers in close quarters. Closes quickly and wraps up well, but isn't an explosive hitter likely to knock the ball free. Has forced just two fumbles in three seasons of action.
Intangibles: Naturally large man with plenty of room for additional growth. Appears to be just scratching the surface of his physical potential, though he has three years of starting experience in the SEC. Blocked four kicks from 2009-11. Was suspended for the 2011 season-opener (Memphis), along with four other Bulldogs, for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki): top-rated DT; 6th overall
Positives: Intriguing size-speed ratio, length and growth potential. Rare movement skills for his size—clocked a 40-time as low as 4.77 seconds and a 3-cone time of 7.07 seconds—both tops among defensive tackles at the Combine. Has very long arms and large hands. Outstanding base strength. Good balance. Coordinates active hands and energetic feet. Can play in gaps and work the edges. Outquicks reach blocks, rips under and disrupts the backfield. Very athletic—easy movement skills and impressive agility and change of direction for a big man. Spins off blocks. Able to adjust and redirect. Ranges outside the box. Reacts to screens. Heavy wrap tackler. Versatile—can slide along the line. Just scratching the surface and is loaded with upside. Flashed the ability to dominate against SEC competition. Improved film study and work habits.
Negatives: Average explosion (26-inch vertical jump). Can do a better job shooting his hands and gaining extension. Can play with more consistent leverage. Has to improve hand use and counters. Is still developing positional nuance, honing instincts and learning how to feel blocking pressure. Occasionally loafs in pursuit. Inconsistent get-off. Only one season of high-quality performance.
Summary: Strong, long, quick, athletic, powerful disruptive force who really came on late as a junior and possesses the position and scheme versatility to warrant top-10 consideration. Has comparable athletic ability to Minnesota Vikings 2003 No. 9 overall Kevin Williams, but is even stronger and quickly could emerge as a Pro Bowl performer in a "30" or "40" front.
ESPN/ Scouts, Inc. (Gary Horton): top-rated DT; 6th overall
Versus the Run: Fires out of stance and is strong enough to hold ground in most one-on-one situations when he keeps pad level. Has a powerful upper body and quick, strong hands. Showed much improved awareness in 2011. Can stack and shed in time to make plays at the line of scrimmage. Very good range for a defensive tackle and makes more plays outside the tackle box than most at his position. However, he needs to play with more consistent leverage versus the run. He's not big enough to anchor against double teams when doesn't stay low. Gets washed down the line of scrimmage by angle blocks a little too much. Does a better job extending arms and controlling gap as a five-technique than he does inside at DT, where he's more effective when shooting a gap and trying to disrupt in the backfield. "
Pass Rush Skills: Explosive bull rusher that can collapse the pocket whether he's lined up on the inside or the outside. Can be very effective as a bull rusher when he stays low. Effective hand fighter that flashes rip and pull moves. Just average lateral mobility and isn't going to get many offensive linemen off balance with side-to-side moves. Is versatile and can play all along the DL, but best pass-rush potential in NFL is inside. "
Quickness (hands/feet): Active and violent hands. Very quick first-step. Is quick enough to shoot gaps and make plays in the backfield.
Toughness/Motor: Relentless might be an overstatement but overall motor is very good. Doesn't give up when he fails to win with first move. Not quite as thick or strong as Corey Liuget (Chargers) but shares a lot of similarities in terms of motor and versatility. Pursues hard from behind when there's even a slight chance of getting back into the play. He's a tempo setter up front. Plays with an edge and not afraid to get in opponent's face.
Intangibles: Was one of five players suspended for 2011 season-opener vs. Memphis for violating team rules. But really matured during his final season at Mississippi State. Improved dedication off-the-field (weight room and film room) translated to improved production on the field in 2011.
Several pundits whose opinions I trust have announced that the Cowboys are zeroing in on four first-round targets: Cox, Stanford's David DeCastro, the aforementioned Brockers, and Alabama safety Mark Barron. Of these, I think Cox is the primary target; if all four are, by some miraculous stroke of fortune, still on the board when Dallas goes on the clock at # 14, I think they'll choose Cox.
The real issue here is whether he'll be there. In addition to the Cowboys, the Rams (6), Panthers (8), and Bills (10) have either invited Cox in for a pre-draft visit or spent significant time with him at the Combine. In addition there are rumors about the Eagles wanting to trade up--perhaps as far as the seventh pick, currently held by Jacksonville--to nab him. So, as much as I like the former MSU Bulldog, I simply don't think he'll survive the gauntlet of pass-rush needy teams with selections in front of the Cowboys.
Next up: Memphis DT-DE Dontari Poe
Scouting Report on Fletcher Cox