On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being "a complete non-story that isn't worth 922 words of commentary" and 10 being "total talk-radio, comments-section apoplexy," Fletcher Cox's decision to skip the Eagles' first week of organized team activities is, roughly, a 4.7. It's not nothing, but it's not everything. What it is, primarily, is a bad look for Cox, a player the Eagles signed to a six-year, $103 million contract last year that made him the second-highest-paid defensive tackle in the NFL. A player who still carries sizable - and to an extent unfulfilled - expectations. A player for whom perception still matters.
Cox, according to a league source, was with his family and is expected to return for next week's OTAs, and coach Doug Pederson said that Cox had participated in the team's offseason program fully until his absence Tuesday. OTAs are "voluntary," and the reason that word is in quotes is that in the NFL, "voluntary" means different things to different people, depending on who the people are. In the Eagles' practice facility, for instance, Cox's locker is next to Brandon Graham's. Did it matter to Graham whether a player skipped an OTA?
"Nope," he said.
That's the code of the room: A man tends to his own business. If he's there, he's there. If he's not, he must have his reasons, and those aren't anyone else's concern. A player might skip OTAs to send the franchise a message that he's unhappy with his contract or his place on the team; Sam Bradford did that last year. A player might have a personal or familial situation that would prevent him from attending. A player might be so far along or so accomplished in his career that a few days of practices and meetings will benefit him minimally, if at all. A player might just decide that he doesn't want to show up.
"It's more so for the coaches," said wide receiver Torrey Smith, a six-year NFL veteran who had previously played for the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers. "But I think it says a lot when everyone is here and you're working toward something. Obviously, there are some veteran guys who know what it takes, and they're working out in the offseason, and whatever they do, they relax their mind. They know they'll be ready. You know you aren't going to see Ray Lewis until mandatory minicamp. But they're going to be ready to roll. That's just how it goes. But I know coaches are always upset with that."
True to form, Pederson seemed a bit miffed that Cox had not shown up.
"Well, the reason is satisfactory," Pederson said. "Again, it's a voluntary program. I would love for everybody to be here. That's just me, personally. I would love everybody to be here. I know it's not always going to work out that way. But, you know, Fletcher's one of the leaders on the football team. Guys like that, you do expect to be here. I get the rules. We abide by the rules. He's one of the guys, too, that, at the end of the day, I'm going to hang my hat on and go to war with."
Cox was one of four Eagles who did not attend Tuesday's practice, and their reasons were varied. Punter Donnie Jones will turn 37 in July, is among the best at his position in the league, and might have only so many punts left in his left leg. The time away would do him no harm. Left tackle Jason Peters is 35, a nine-time Pro Bowler and a two-time first-team all-pro, and arguably the Eagles' most respected player. He is also 6-foot-4 and 328 pounds and reportedly was asked in February by the Eagles to take a pay cut; if you would like to tell him he should attend a series of offseason workouts that he is not contractually obliged to attend, be my guest.
As for defensive end Marcus Smith, the Eagles' first-round draft pick in 2014, his absence was so seismic an event that Pederson, when asked to list who was missing these OTAs, neglected to mention him, and among the media members who were watching practice Tuesday, no one noticed that Smith wasn't there until the Eagles were at least two hours into the workout. (Maybe that says as much about our observational skills as it does Smith's dedication, but you get the point.)
Cox was a different case altogether. He is 26 and has no cause to be unsatisfied with his contract. According to a pair of posts on his Snapchat account, he had recently been in the Caribbean and had attended former teammate Jeremy Maclin's wedding last weekend in St. Louis. It's entirely possible that he views himself as a player on Peters' or Lewis' level, that it matters not whether he misses an OTA. And if he plays well this season, it won't matter. But after signing that extension, he was a good player last season, not a dominant one, not a great one, and what he has done here is hand fans and critics a mallet to hammer him throughout the offseason and, if in their eyes his performance doesn't justify his contract, for all or part of the regular season. He basically gave himself a headache.
Again, it's not the end of the world, and it doesn't have to be. But it is a bad look, at the moment, for Fletcher Cox. It's on him to make sure it doesn't become anything more.