News & Analysis

While cast in Aaron Donald’s shadow, Fletcher Cox will go down as one of the best to ever do it

The freak that is Aaron Donald and his reign as the NFL’s top defensive interior has unfairly pushed Philadelphia EaglesFletcher Cox into the shadows, forcing a perennial talent in Cox to play the role of Scottie Pippen or Reggie Miller in what was Michael Jordan’s 90s. Donald, like Jordan, will draw in all of the top accolades and significant praise when we look back on this era of NFL talent; Cox and his praise will undeservedly be the afterthought.

RUSHING THE PASSER

Among the 125 interior defensive linemen with 500 or more pass-rush snaps since 2015, Donald ranks first in pass-rush grade (95.9), total pressures (375) and pass-rush win percentage (22.1%). Cox ranks second behind Donald in all three metrics.

And the trend continues, as Donald led all at his position in pass-rush grade in each of the past four seasons (2015-18). Cox ranked second two of the years (2017 & 2018) and third in another (2015).

The five best single-season pass-rush win rates in the PFF era (2006-18) all belong to Donald and Cox. Donald owns the three best (2016, 2017 &2018) and the fifth-best (2015), while Cox owns the fourth-best (2018).

Donald’s pass-rushing ability is truly second to none at the position, but the man that lays claim to second on the list is damn good. Cox isn’t nearly as athletic or explosive as Donald, but the 6-foot-4, 310-pounder holds his own in that regard considering his bear-like size. He’s a mountain of a man that moves likes he’s much smaller but hits his opposition like he’s much bigger. And he’s just now coming off the best pass-rushing season of his career.

As previously mentioned, Cox’s pass-rush win rate in 2018 (20.9%) is the fourth-best single-season mark of any defensive interior in the PFF era. And his 91.2 pass-rush grade this past season, another career-high for the big man, also ranks inside the top 10 among qualifiers since 2006.

DEFENDING THE RUN

Detroit LionsDamon “Snacks” Harrison has earned the top run-defense grade of any defender over the past five years and will likely go down as one of the NFL’s best run defenders to ever take the field. Not even Donald can take that away from Snacks, but he isn’t too far down the list after him, and neither is Cox.

Donald’s five-year run-defense grade (94.3) ranks second behind Harrison among the 102 interior defensive linemen with 600 or more run-defense snaps played since 2014. Falling behind some run-defense specialists that lack pass-rushing ability, Cox ranks ninth on the list but has still amassed an impressive 91.2 run-defense grade in the five-year span.

Cox plays the role of immovable force as opposed to penetrator more than Donald largely because of their size differences, which is a primary reason why Donald leads all interior linemen in tackles for loss or no gain of the past years with 78 while Cox ranks ninth with just 45. Both are fantastic run defenders, two of the best in the NFL, but (again) it’s Donald that gets the nod over Cox.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Donald is the best interior defender in the sport right now and could very well go down as the best the NFL has ever seen when it’s all set and done. Cox is a first-ballot Hall of Famer that will undoubtedly retire as one of the NFL’s top interior defensive linemen to ever play the game.

Both can be true.

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