Defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Malik Jackson have been Eagles teammates for five months now. But they have yet to line up next to each other on the field.
That is expected to change very, very soon. Cox, a four-time Pro Bowler and a 2018 first-team All-Pro selection, is days away from finally returning after missing spring OTAs and the first three weeks of training camp rehabbing the surgically repaired foot that he injured in the Eagles’ playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints in January.
“Everything is falling into place and I’ll be where I need to be when it’s time to roll,’’ Cox said Monday. “I’m getting excited about it.’’
So are defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and defensive line coach Phillip Daniels. With Cox, Jackson, and a healthy-again Tim Jernigan, the Eagles will enter the season with the best defensive tackle rotation in the NFL.
“I’m anxious to see them play together,’’ Daniels said. “It’s going to be fun when we get out there and get things going.’’
Said the Eagles’ Pro Bowl right guard, Brandon Brooks: “That d-tackle rotation is going to be crazy. With those three in there, lots of sacks, man. Obviously, Fletch is the guy. But Malik and Timmy both are really good players, too.’’
Last year, with Jernigan missing most of the season following offseason back surgery, the perpetually double-teamed Cox still managed to register a career-high 10½ sacks despite playing next to the likes of 34-year-old Haloti Ngata (370 snaps), Treyvon Hester (226), Destiny Vaeao (158), Bruce Hector (82), and T.Y. McGill (45).
Cox’s best interior pass-rush partner was defensive end Michael Bennett, who frequently slid inside in passing situations the second half of the season.
The Eagles signed the 6-foot-5, 290-pound Jackson to a three-year, $30 million free-agent contract in March. He had 28½ sacks with Denver and Jacksonville from 2013 to 2017, but is coming off a disappointing year with the Jaguars in which he had just 3½ sacks and was benched in the second half of the season.
“He’s a long guy that can make things happen,’’ Daniels said. “Playing next to Fletch is going to be good for him. Fletch gets a lot of attention. Now, Malik is going to take some attention off Fletch. Because if you slide to Fletch now, Malik can kill you. We got two guys that complement each other.’’
A major part of the reason Jackson signed with the Eagles, besides the $17 million in guaranteed money, was the opportunity to play next to Cox.
“I can’t wait,’’ he said. “Fletch is a monster. Timmy and I are just trying to be as consistent as we can, so that when Big Dog comes back, we’re on the same page with him.’’
While Daniels said that Jackson is going to take some attention off Cox, the fact of the matter is the Yazoo City, Miss., native still is going to be the focal point of opposing offensive lines.
“Nothing’s going to change,’’ Brooks said. “They’re still going to slide to Fletch. Last year, when the Rams had [Ndamukong] Suh and [Aaron] Donald, we slid to Donald every time. You’re always going to slide to the best player.’’
He’s right. The difference is, Jackson and Jernigan give the Eagles two players capable of taking advantage of the one-on-ones they’re going to see because of the attention Cox draws.
“They’re going to roll to him every time,’’ Jackson said. “If they don’t, it’s a mistake. Me coming in here, it’s my understanding that they’re going to slide to him all the time.
“It’s my job to come in here early, get pressures, get sacks, and make them start paying attention to me so Fletcher can get his one-on-ones.’’
All of the league’s great defensive linemen deal with constant double teams. Donald. Khalil Mack. J.J. Watt. Von Miller. Cox. It comes with the territory. And the big contract.
“It’s going to be fun,’’ Cox said. “Every down, somebody is going to have a one-on-one. Whether it’s me or Malik or Timmy, whoever has that one-on-one needs to win it. There are no excuses in our [defensive line] room for not winning a one-on-one.’’
Derek Barnett is coming off major shoulder surgery, and Vinny Curry, who returned to the Eagles after a year in Tampa Bay, has had more than four sacks just once in his career.
But if the Eagles are as good inside as Daniels and Schwartz think they will be, they won’t need to be as dominant on the outside.
“If you can generate push in the pocket, it makes it easier to rush from the edge,’’ said the Eagles’ Pro Bowl center, Jason Kelce.
“Fletch is the big reason why our edge guys have been so successful here in the past, in my opinion,’’ he said. “Having both those guys now should help them out even more. It’s going to be really hard [for offensive lines] to keep that middle firm with those two guys, even with a double team.’’
At the NFL combine earlier this year, Oakland Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said finding ways to get inside pressure on the quarterback is the key to shutting down a passing game.
“Over the years, I’ve talked to almost every top quarterback in the NFL and have asked them all the same question,’’ Mayock said. “What bothers you the most? Almost every one of them said the same thing: immediate pressure up the middle.
“If you have a couple of good edge rushers, [the quarterback] can step up inside the pocket if it’s a sound front. But if you’re getting push, that’s different.
“It disturbs sight lines. It forces you to readjust your feet. We’re at the point now where people are throwing the ball so much that you have to find a way to affect it regardless. Which places more emphasis on the inside guys.’’
Which is why Schwartz and Daniels both are walking around the NovaCare Complex with smiles on their faces. Because they’ve got not one, not two, but three inside guys who can make life miserable for quarterbacks.
Jackson said his top priority this season isn’t necessarily going to be getting sacks. It’s going to be forcing quarterbacks off their spot.
“For me, I’ve made it a point to not really think about sacks so much and really think about pressures and getting them off their spot,’’ he said. “You get them off their spot, it’s going to make the team better.