Fletcher Cox’s goal was to win defensive player of the year this season. On Sunday, Cox will see the player who will likely win it over him – again.
Aaron Donald, who was the 2017 defensive player of the year, is on track to win back-to-back awards. Donald leads the NFL with 16.5 sacks, and the Eagles offensive linemen know the challenge he presents. Cox, who has 6.5 sacks, is still having a strong season for the Eagles. He absorbs double-teams throughout games and has been one of the few consistent performers on the Eagles defense. He’s one of the elite players in the league, and it’s not often he goes into a game in which he’s not the best interior lineman on the field. Sunday will be one of them, though.
“I think we’re two totally different players,” Cox said. “He’s a lot smaller than I am, he’s moving around a lot quicker than I do. I’m more of a power guy. He’s got more of a speed guy around the edge. We’re just two totally different people when it comes to comparing us. We’re both really good players.”
Cox is 6-foot-4 and 310 pounds and plays as a defensive tackle in the Eagles’ 4-3 defense. Donald is 6-foot-1 and 280 pounds and plays in a different defensive scheme. Of course, Donald would be productive in any scheme. He played in a system comparable to the Eagles’ earlier in his career, and he still averaged nine sacks per season.
“Very rarely do you see the combination of gifts that Aaron Donald possesses,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said.
Cox compares more to Ndamukong Suh, another star on the Rams’ line who is one of the top defensive linemen in the NFL. But come award season, it’ll be Donald atop the list.
Chris Long, who played with Donald during Donald’s first two seasons, said Donald excelled from the moment he arrived in the NFL. And when Long would go late to study film, he would find Donald was the last one left in the building. Donald has continued improving each year.
“It’s good for the game to have players like that,” Long said.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the season Cox is having. He’s played 81 percent of the defensive snaps and the coaching staff insists his influence on the game cannot be measured by statistics. This has long been the organization’s defense of Cox’s brilliance.
“He demands 600 pounds of force every snap,” defensive line coach Chris Wilson said. “And if it doesn’t, he wins one-on-one. So when he does, he opens up the playing field for so many guys. He gets so many guys opportunities. Can it be frustrating? Absolutely. But that’s what comes along with being a premier player in this league.”
However, other top defensive tackles also draw double teams. Donald’s one of them.
The double teams against Cox have been more apparent this year because the Eagles haven’t had defensive tackle Tim Jernigan for most of the season. They’ve used a rotating stable of reserve defensive tackles – on passing downs, though, a defensive end often moves inside. But when opponents prepare for the Eagles, they make sure they know where Cox is on the field.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz assessed Cox’s season as “6-7.” That’s the Eagles’ record, and it’s become Schwartz’s stock answer for player evaluation. But it’s fair to say Cox is having a better year than the team.
“That's what our record is, so that's on everybody,” Schwartz said. “But he's a very productive player for us. He's one of the best players in the league. When it's all said and done, that's what our record is. …We're not satisfied with any statistic or any individual play when we don't come out with the win.”
Cox had 1.5 sacks against the Cowboys last week, although it could have been 2.5 – one of his sacks was negated by an offensive holding penalty that the Eagles accepted. It made sense for the team to push the Cowboys back 10 yards, but when Cox’s statistics are viewed after the season, there will be no asterisk for the sacks that didn’t count.
“Yes, it matters,” Cox said. “I won’t speak on that, but it does matter.”
Cox doesn’t need eye-popping statistics to capture the attention of opposing coaches. Rams coach Sean McVay, who has prepared for Cox dating back to his days as a Washington assistant, said he notices “how disruptive” Cox is while watching the film.
“One of the things I really respect and appreciate about him is the relentless effort he plays with,” McVay said. “Clearly he’s a powerful guy that can work edges, extremely strong, explosive player. I just think certain guys, you’re just watching the tape…and they jump off the screen. Fletcher’s been one of those guys who’s done that consistently.”
He might do it again on Sunday. It just won’t net him defensive player of the year this season.
“Aaron is my boy,” Cox said. “We talk all the time. We always wish each other the best, having success on and off the field. …He’s on his side and I’m on my side, and we’ll get a chance to watch each other and actually be at the same game.”