Fletcher Cox - DT - Mississippi State, 6-4, 298 lb
One of my favorite stories from the recent Combine was one told by NFL Network's excellent analyst and draft expert Mike Mayock about his own introduction to Bill Parcells. The first thing the two-time Super Bowl champion head coach said upon meeting Mayock was, “You’re like a bull in high grass, Mike.” "What’s that?" asked Mayock. “You’re lost.” Parcells replied.
Mayock may have come a long way since then, but it's also fair to note that even the best of draft guys are wrong a lot of the time. On the other hand - so are head coaches and GMs. Those that try to comprehend the draft are always going to be in some high grass. That's one of the things that makes it so enjoyable: you can always either find a diamond in the rough, or take a can't-miss candidate who can -and does.
Mayock calls the defensive linemen the deepest group in the draft, but he also let his own perspective out a bit in doing so. I get what he’s saying, and he’s not wrong. I see the DEs and the DTs in very different terms, and I tend to see the players who will be taken as OLBs separately from the 4-3 DEs, which makes the entire exercise more difficult - sometimes it’s more clear where they fit than others, but in general I think about how they'd fit into different schemes. There are always several ways to use a particular skillset.
Mayock talked about how there are about eight guys with a first-round grade. That’s true when you put the three (or four, depending) groups together and it’s a good year for Denver to break their long DT slump - but it’s all about finding a guy who fits your scheme, with can be harder at #25. They’re there,of course, and they used to be called ‘value picks.’ It’s about understanding your scheme and sticking to the players who can fit into it. Good communication with everyone understanding what qualities matter the most really helps. A little luck never went amiss.
According to Pro Football Focus, Brodrick Bunkley had the #3 ranking in the league on run stops, which made a huge difference in Denver’s level of play even though he was often a two-down NT, with Ryan McBean coming in for nickel (and often dime) downs. Marcus Thomas played well overall, and McBean played the rotational 4-3 NT role far better than I'd expected. The area that Denver fell short up the middle was the role of the under tackle, and I had hoped that Thomas would show his athleticism in pushing up the middle in the single gap. It really didn’t happen - Denver didn’t get a sack out of either Bunkley or Thomas.
I think that Bunkley has to be offered a commensurate contract due to his powerful run-stopping talent, but Denver still badly needs that single-gap penetrator that can offer another five or six sacks. In the entire draft, there are a lot of DE/OLB guys who are being called DL players for the moment, and several will go to 3-4 teams. In the big guys, most of the talented players this year are best suited as NTs, although a lot of that can be a matter of scheme as well. Warren Sapp recognized Fletcher Cox as having the closest skillset to his own, and that’s high praise, considering the source. Let’s look at why he thought so:
Cox, a DT out of Mississippi State, didn’t get a lot of national press leading up to the end of the season but he’s getting a lot of looks from the college fans (including myself, increasingly), draftniks, scouts and coaches. He was recognized as the SEC's Lineman of the Week four times last season and showed up in Indy at 298 lb, only three pounds above his college playing weight. I saw him in a couple of games, and from what I’ve seen he seemed to have had an unusually explosive first step, the first key to success as an effective under tackle. His 1.63-second 10-yard split confirmed that and gave an indication of how elite it is. Hand use is something that every college player has to learn in greater degree in the NFL, and Cox is no exception, but he does use his hands well for his level. He also plays with exceptional leverage, the third jewel in the pass rush trifecta. There aren’t a lot like him this year, so if you like that archetype, the pickings are somewhat limited.
It didn’t take long for him to show his skills at Combine. He was one of the first DTs to run the 40, and he produced a fairly blazing 4.79 in the 40 and added 30 reps on the bench, which is a bit above average (28) and very good for a guy with 34.5-inch arms - longer arms are up against a physical disadvantage, which makes repeated lifting harder, changing the test to one of endurance rather than pure strength. His time in the 40 was far more impressive when considering his 10-yard split, making him faster than some of the RBs in that short initial burst when a pass rusher can do his primary damage - that’s explosion, and there’s not substitute for it. To put it in perspective, Cox tied the 10-yard spit of West Virginia pass-rush specialist Bruce Irvin, who plays at 245 lb and ran his own 40 in an unofficial 4.43, although the official time is 4.50. Cox reaches and gets his hands (10.4 inches) into OL players well. He’s also got a strong grip. He started for 2.5 years and he’s an early entry junior coming into the NFL, so he’ll have a learning curve. Even so - I don’t think that if he drops to Denver that they should or even could resist taking him. You can’t have a top pass pressure line without a penetrating under tackle.
Cornerback is a big position of need right now for Denver, and several perspectives might reveal themselves, but if they don’t add that inside pass rushing presence in either FA or the draft, they will tend to continue to struggle against better passing attacks and OLs just as they did in 2011. This isn’t new, and it isn’t news to EFX. The problem they’re likely to face is seeing other teams with the same need pulling LSU's Michael Brockers off the table; Cox could go shortly thereafter, and they know that, too. Who falls to the Broncos - at whatever position they go with among their needs and possible moves - will make all the difference. I expect a lot of movement in the first round this year; it should be an eventful draft.