Mississippi State’s Fletcher Cox is one of the top defensive linemen in this year’s draft class because of his exceptional physical skills. He has the natural talent to be a dominant, penetrating three-technique defensive tackle that we’ve seen many others become over the years, such as former Buccaneer Warren Sapp and current Minnesota Viking Kevin Williams.
However, Cox is very raw despite starting more than two years in college, which makes him somewhat of a risky prospect at the top of the draft. Is his talent worthy of a top 10 pick as some suggest?
At the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Cox came in at an impressive 6’4″ with 34 1/2′” arms, an ideal height and length at the defensive tackle position. With his long arms, he’ll be able to keep blockers off his breast pads when penetrating at the next level. Along with his quality stature and arm length, Cox weighed in at 298 pounds, showcasing a thick lower body particularly around the hips.
One of the biggest stock boosters for prospects in the draft process is versatility. It’s important to have a prospect be versatile and play multiple positions because it gives the defense more ways to use him, and it creates better matchups across the board. The Mississippi State product is indeed versatile, lining up all over the defensive line and even dropping in coverage a few times.
Along the defensive line, he’s played the three-technique alignment, which is across the outside shoulder of the offensive guard, while also serving as a five-technique that puts him across the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle. These are not the only techniques he’s aligned in, as he’s also played shaded four-technique, but the three and five are the two techniques that he’s primarily been evaluated at by coaches, scouts, and general managers.
Pad level is sometimes overlooked, but it’s a very important aspect of being a quality defensive lineman. Although this is able to be corrected with coaching, it’s a significant issue with Cox because at the snap of the ball, he explodes off the line of scrimmage and immediately stands up, similar to a jack-in-the-box.
When he does this, he immediately decreases his chances of successfully penetrating into the backfield because he doesn’t have leverage advantage over the blocker. As the old saying goes, “low man wins,” and that’s what Cox needs to become more often. He has shown flashes of playing with better pad level, and when this happens, he’s a very difficult player to deal with because he’s quick off the line, and has strong hands and a good motor.
Technique goes hand-in-hand with pad level in my opinion, and this aspect of the game comes in two forms: hand use and footwork. It’s also another problem area for Cox, which is why he’s considered a “raw” prospect.
Cox doesn’t always use his long arms effectively, as he should get his hands inside the blocker’s chest and lock his elbows out, enabling him to gain control and the leverage advantage. He has quick hands and has shown flashes of using them correctly, and when he has the proper form he’s very effective, but he’s still inconsistent. That inconsistency allows the blocker to get into his chest, and then it becomes more difficult for Cox to get into the backfield. Although he’s been successful despite this, that won’t continue in the NFL if he continues to allow blockers into his chest.
Along with his lack of consistent quality hand use, Cox’s footwork needs to be cleaned up. He needs to play with a good base to get the most out of his quality upper body strength. But he doesn’t always do that, as his feet will get closer and he’s vulnerable to being knocked off-balance.
One of the reasons Cox is so appealing to NFL personnel men and draftniks is because of his quick first step off the line of scrimmage. Cox is very quick off the line and has a quality burst that makes him very difficult to deal with for interior blockers. Not all offensive guards are able to handle great quickness off the line, and that’s been evident on numerous occasions throughout Cox’s career, whether it’s been on passing downs, or when he’s attempting to block a field goal.
He’s able to convert quickness to power very well, which makes him an impressive prospect. As previously noted, he has good upper body strength that gives him the ability to deal with blockers. When that’s combined with his quickness, he’s a very dangerous player.
It’s difficult to pick which aspect of Cox’s game is more impressive between his quickness, and how light he is on his feet. He has shown many times that he can make plays parallel to the line of scrimmage in pursuit of ball carriers, and also occasionally drop in short zones in coverage, sometimes becoming a soft flat defender.
This is very intriguing because it gives defensive coordinators more options while choosing how to use him, especially when considering zone blitzes that utilize an exchange of responsibilities between two defenders, like an inside linebacker and defensive tackle.
Ball location is an area which many interior defensive linemen appear to have issues with coming out of college, and it’s usually a matter of recognition. It’s important for a defender to be able to identify the play, and Cox is still improving in this area. At times he’s shown the ability to sniff out screen passes, but other times he’s run right past the intended target.
Cox is one of the top prospects in this year’s draft, and he’s likely to be a top fifteen pick because of his great physical talents enable him to wreak havoc in backfields. He’s still very raw, however, as he needs to improve his overall technique and bring down his pad level.
He’s a little risky at the top of the draft because after two years, he still hasn’t improved a significant amount with his technique. But his physical talents will likely be too appealing for a general manager to pass up.