JIM WASHBURN is 62. He says this Eagles' defensive line is his last coaching project, and the front office just handed him a big key to completing it.
"He's an exploder, and he's tough. If they can't explode, I don't want 'em. If they don't love football, I ain't got no use for 'em. He explodes and he can play and he likes it and he's passionate," Washburn said Thursday night, when asked about Fletcher Cox, the 6-4, 296-pound defensive tackle from Mississippi State the Eagles traded up from 15th to 12th in the first round to draft. "When God made him, he meant him to play in this system right here."
That's a pretty solid endorsement. To hear Washburn tell it, though, it was one he had no idea he would be making when the evening began. Washburn said he didn't know Cox would be in his future until he was called into the draft room and told about the trade, just before it was announced. "I didn't think we had a chance," he said.
Eagles coach Andy Reid said the Birds figured Cox would go in the top six, or seven, and they weren't aiming to trade up that high. In fact, Reid said the Eagles weren't willing to part with a second- and didn't really want to trade a third-round pick, which meant their mobility was going to be limited to a few spaces, in a draft when everybody seemed to be moving.
But the first five picks were all used on offensive stars, and the Eagles correctly surmised that Dallas wasn't trading up to six for Cox (the Cowboys got corner Morris Claiborne, from LSU). Tampa took Alabama safety Mark Barron. Miami took quarterback Ryan Tannehill, from Texas A&M, which helped the Birds' cause, Reid said. The Eagles were worried about Carolina at nine, but the Panthers went for Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, the early-line favorite of Birds fans, before the drafterati fell in love with Cox. As Reid noted, those were very high spots for a safety and a linebacker. Barron particularly went higher than most people projected.
"We had ourselves honed in on what we wanted to spend, and so we weren't going to get quite as elaborate as some did," Reid said. "We had other people there that we also liked if this didn't work out. We felt we were OK, and didn't have to overspend."
Then the Eagles started thinking they could do something with Seattle at 12 - turned out they needed only a fourth- and a sixth-round pick for the small move. Buffalo took South Carolina corner Stephon Gilmore, Kansas City took Memphis DT Dontari Poe. Eagles fans might have thought they dodged a bullet there, but Reid said the Eagles figured the Chiefs wanted a nose tackle, and that was Poe, at 346 pounds, not Cox, at 296.
"[Cox] is just such a good athlete," said Washburn, whose wide-nine front needs dynamic, powerful, difference-making players up front. "I told Andy when I came back from working him out in Starkville [Miss.], he's the biggest 296-pounder I've ever seen. He's just sudden, he's quick. He's just really athletic."
Cox told reporters on a conference call that he wanted to go to the Eagles, didn't know if he would. He said he hit it off well with Washburn, and he and his agents agreed the Eagles' system would be a great fit. Eagles linebacker Jamar Chaney, a Cox teammate at Mississippi State in Cox' freshman year, texted that Cox "is going to kill in the wide nine."
"I'll bring excitement with me to Philadelphia, and I'll bring a guy who's hard-working, with a great attitude, a guy who never quits," said Cox, who posted five sacks as a junior in his final college season. "It'll be a pleasure to play under coach Washburn. We went out and ate, we worked out, we had a good time. He just told me I was a great player and he'd like to coach me at the next level. We went out and did some drills and I learned things real quick."
Reid said Cox "can anchor down at tackle" or rush from an end spot, can play 4-3 or 3-4.
"He's one of those rare kids that size who can run," Reid said.
"He's a really soft-spoken, shy, country guy," Washburn said. "I took him out to eat, we talked about deer huntin' for about the first 2 hours, spent about 15 minutes on football. I know [avid hunters Jason Babin and Trent Cole] are going to be excited . . . Everybody on campus I talked to had nothing but accolades."
Mike Patterson and Cullen Jenkins are the incumbent d-tackle starters. Washburn said Cox will "jump into the rotation and start playing," and won't necessarily start right away. "It'll be fun," Washburn promised.
Washburn said he noticed Cox during the season, watching a Thursday-night Mississippi State game on TV. "I called a friend of mind and I said, 'Who is this guy, 94?' And he said, 'Fletcher Cox, he's just a junior.' And I thought, 'Whoa!' "
Cox, who turned 21 in December, declared for the draft when the season ended and immediately went to the top of what was considered a very strong group of d-tackles.
Washburn said Mississippi State slants more than the Eagles do, in rushing the passer, but he figures Cox can make that adjustment.
"He has the whole package," Reid said of Cox, whose childhood nickname was "Bug-Eye." "He was someone that we targeted, and we tried to stay aggressive and go get him."
Reid has taken a defensive lineman with his first pick in seven of his 14 drafts, including 5 of the last 8 years. He took offensive linemen first two other times - someone for one of the lines first, at least, in seven of the last nine drafts. Quarterback Kevin Kolb (2007) and wideout Jeremy Maclin (2009) are the lone exceptions in that span.
"I've said it for so many years here that I think you win games up front," Reid said. "If you can perform up front, whether it's offensive or defensive line, you make everybody better . . . In this case, with the defensive line, it puts a tremendous urgency on the quarterback that they have to make these decisions . . . There are very few quarterbacks that can throw when they have someone right in their face."
The Eagles pick 46th and 51st in the second round Friday, 88th in the third. A cornerback and or a receiver would seem possible targets, a linebacker not out of the question. The final four rounds will be held Saturday.