The Eagles knew they had something special after Lane Johnson’s second season. He’d converted from quarterback to offensive lineman in college, but still the Birds drafted him fourth overall in 2014, hopeful he would quickly mature into a star.

He did. By the end of 2015, he’d become a dominant run-blocker and had refined his pass-blocking skills to the point that stardom was around the corner — if he could get a little help.

That help arrived in March 2016, when the Eagles signed right guard Brandon Brooks to a five-year, $40 million free-agent contract. Brooks and Johnson have been the NFL’s best 1-2 punch on the right side ever since.

The Eagles knew, too, that they had something special in Fletcher Cox after the 2015 season. They’d drafted him 12th overall in 2012, but, after a strong rookie season as a defensive tackle in Andy Reid’s 4-3 defensive scheme, they had played Cox out of position, as a defensive end, in Chip Kelly’s 3-4 alignment.

Nevertheless, in Kelly’s third and final season, Cox collected 9½ sacks, made his first Pro Bowl, and proved to everyone he not only deserved a big payday, but he also needed a prime-time partner in the trenches.

He never got one.

Until now.

In the opener last week in Atlanta, Javon Hargrave looked like the kind of player who can finally give Cox the room he needs to thrive. Left tackle Trent Williams and center Alex Mack might give them a stiffer test when the 49ers visit Sunday, but not many offensive lines could withstand the second-half push Cox and Hargrave provided.

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Sooo good

To understand the importance of Hargrave’s presence, it’s important to understand just how good Fletcher Cox is.

Cox is, by any measure, the best player of this golden era of the Eagles franchise. He is, by most measures, the best interior lineman the Eagles have ever seen, and, with apologies to the Clyde Simmons contingent, he’s the second-best defensive lineman in franchise history.

No, he’ll never be considered better than defensive end Reggie White, who not only was the best defensive lineman in Eagles history but, arguably, was the best the NFL has ever seen. However, in his prime years, Reggie played next to defensive tackle Jerome Brown and was bookended with Simmons — which, frankly, diminishes the perceived greatness of Simmons and Brown.

Not only were his defensive teammates superior to what Cox has endured, White’s coaches were legend. Yes, Cox has had Brandon Graham, but BG isn’t what Simmons and Brown were, and former Eagles coordinator Jim Schwartz isn’t Bud Carson or Wade Phillips. But this digression has gone far enough.

Cox has been stupendous with relatively little support. Not that the Eagles didn’t occasionally try to give him some help.

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The misses

Cox landed in 2012 next to veteran Cullen Jenkins, who, at 31, was pretty much cooked. In 2013, general manager Howie Roseman signed Isaac Sopoaga. After eight games, Roseman admitted his mistake and traded Sopoaga to make room for rookie Bennie Logan, a third-round pick and, unfortunately, a Howie special: the kind of player Roseman hopes will outplay his draft slot or his contract and make Roseman look smart.

Logan did not outplay his slot, and the Eagles wasted Cox’s best years. Cox played with Logan, Cedric Thornton, and Beau Allen on his hip for the next four seasons. He still went to Pro Bowls in 2015 and 2016. And the Eagles still searched for a worthy trench-mate.

In 2017, the Birds traded down 25 spots in the third round of the 2018 draft to land Ravens tackle Timmy Jernigan, with whom Roseman became so enamored that he gave him a four-year, $48 million extension before 2017 was over. Sadly, Jernigan himself was pretty much over. He suffered a back injury in the 2018 offseason from which he never rebounded.

The Birds anticipated that Jernigan would wither in 2019, so they signed Malik Jackson to a three-year, $30 million contract. Jackson hurt his foot in his first game, missed the rest of 2019, and played fewer than 50% of the snaps in 2020.

But again, the Eagles anticipated Jackson’s demise in 2020, and signed Hargrave to a three-year, $39 million deal in March 2020. But then Hargrave strained a pectoral muscle in the 2020 preseason, started just 11 games, and didn’t play to anywhere near the level his $26 million guarantee suggested he would.

The hit?

Hargrave is playing like a $26 million man now.

He was the unquestioned star of training camp.

Sunday, in perhaps the best game of his career, he collected two sacks, two tackles for losses, five total tackles, and three quarterback hits. On both sacks, Cox drew double-teams.

Cox attracted the attention usually allotted to a player who has made the last six Pro Bowls. With Hargrave now by his side, don’t be surprised if that streak grows.