With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Right up to the draft, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. Everyone loves Cox, except perhaps for the NFL Draft Advisory Board. When Cox was determining whether to forgo his senior season, he asked the Draft Advisory Board to determine where he might be selected. The result? Early second round. "I was a little mad about it," Cox said. "But I figured once I went out and could prove that I can go in the first round, I'd be OK."
Now, cut the Draft Advisory Board some slack. They are communicating with players in early winter, long before pro days or the combine. They are not stocking draft boards or making mock drafts. Their goal is to give players a conservative, realistic projection, so some seventh round pick does not give up on his education and run off to buy a dozen Bentleys. "Early second round" means "you look really good, but a lot depends on workouts, and on how many Dontari Poe-types suddenly appear on the radar, or on whether there is some crazy run on quarterbacks, because life is unpredictable, young man." As it stands, one Poe type appeared on the radar (Poe), and Cox has done nothing but move up draft boards during the offseason evaluation process.
The Eagles supposedly love Cox, though once you get line coach Jim Washburn talking he will express devotion to eight or nine different prospects. The Rams and Dolphins are also reportedly interested. There is little chance that Cox will be unemployed by 9:30 on Thursday night, let alone early Friday evening. That is because he is the most complete, NFL-ready defensive tackle in this class.
Pros: Cox is the most active interior defender in the draft class. His playing speed leaps off the tape. His legs are moving fast at the snap, and he engages his blocker with a jarring hit. There are linemen who are quicker out of the stance, like Jerel Worthy, but Cox gets upfield faster than any other lineman because he is still moving forward after initial contact.
Cox disengages from many blocks because he attacks his blocker suddenly, before that blocker is properly set. He moves laterally very well and can disrupt stretch blocks by getting to his opponent's shoulder and driving him back. He is not a technically-proficient pass rusher, but he generates some sacks by winning with quickness and strength, and he is relentless when blocked: if he cannot get to the quarterback, he will collapse the pocket.
Play recognition is rarely a strength for an interior lineman, but Cox is exceptional at reading screens. Again and again, he bails out on his pass rush and turns to find the running back, sometimes making a tackle for a loss, other times forcing an incomplete pass. Cox also stays alert for quarterback rollouts and reverses, and can often be seen "staying at home" so faster defenders have a chance to clean up those plays. He dropped into coverage at times, and can be a useful zone blitz lineman.
Cox has blocked four career kicks. He often overwhelms special teams blockers, and he has the athleticism to extend his body to get a piece of the ball.
Cons: Like most college linemen, Cox has not yet mastered his technique. He comes off the line a little high at times, making life easier for his blockers, and he does not have precise hand-fighting moves. He played end occasionally at Mississippi State, and while he was adequate in that role, he was much less instinctive, and much easier to block, when rushing from the outside.
There are a few examples of Cox launching at the quarterback a step or two after the ball is clearly gone. (See the Wake Forest tape). That is a no-no, of course.
Conclusion: Cox is a tremendous prospect. He is talented, has a high energy level, and is very alert. He fits best on a 4-3 team as a three-technique tackle. The Giants would love him, but he will not be around when they pick. Steve Spagnuolo and the Saints would love him, but Cox will be at home enjoying a Saturday afternoon snack by the time the Saints pick. The Rams make sense as a landing place, though they have needs elsewhere.
Cox may never be a double-digit sack producer, but he is the kind of lineman who can disrupt a running play in the backfield on one snap and break up a screen in the flat on the next. He can make the players around him better, and he can start doing it right away.
NFL Comparison: Kevin Williams, Minnesota Vikings
More Shutdown 50:
#8: Michael Brockers, DL, LSU | #9: Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State | #10: David CeCastro, OG, Stanford | #11: Stephon Gilmore, OG, Stanford | #12: Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor | #13: Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama | #14: Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina| #15: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A & M| #16: Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College | #17: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame | #18: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama | #19: Mark Barron, S, Alabama | #20: Cordy Glenn, OL, Georgia | #21: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa | #22: Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford| #23: Devon Still, DT, Penn State| #24: Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama| #25: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State| #26: Nick Perry, DE, USC| #27: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska| #28: Dontari Poe, DT/DE, Memphis | #29: Whitney Mercilus, OLB/DE, Illinois | #30: Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson| #31, Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson| #32: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford| #33: Bobby Massie, OT, Mississippi| #34: Andre Branch, DE/OLB, Clemson | #35: Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama | #36: Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse| #37: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech| #38: Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall| #39: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State | #40 : Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers| #41: Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina| #42: Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska| #43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska| #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia| #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami| #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State| #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU | #50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy