After the Eagles traded up in the first round of the NFL Draft this past April to select defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, the team was effusive in its praise of the standout All-SEC lineman.
Head coach Andy Reid said that Cox brought "the whole package" with speed, athletic ability, football IQ and youth. Defensive line coach Jim Washburn simply said that Cox was born to play in his system.
Nearly five months after Cox was drafted with the 12th-overall pick, fans will get to see the 6-4, 298-pound defensive tackle make his NFL regular season debut against the Cleveland Browns. Cox earned first-team reps in the preseason and will factor heavily into the team's defensive tackle rotation. The Eagles made it a point of emphasis to get stronger in the middle of the defense this offseason and Cox was a part of that plan. This Eagles team has a deep defensive line rotation, arguably the strongest in the league. However, the Eagles have Super Bowl aspirations and the first-round pick is going to be expected to produce ... immediately.
"He's just trying to have the best first game that he can. He knows the responsibility that he has," said defensive end Brandon Graham, the Eagles' first-round pick in 2010. "Basically, he knows that he has a job to do this weekend. I'm looking forward to seeing him out there. You've just got to make a good first impression."
Graham actually knows that it takes more than a good first impression. The 13th-overall pick started in Week 1 at left defensive end and had a promising rookie campaign cut short due to a knee injury. Graham had 3.0 sacks in 13 games and earned All-Rookie Team honors from Pro Football Focus. The knee injury, however, severely limited Graham's ability in 2011. Graham played in just three games and registered four tackles. Meanwhile, Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who was selected two spots after Graham, blossomed into an All-Pro with 16.5 sacks last season.
"Don't be caught up in what all of the people are saying," Graham said of his advice to Cox. "Just basically listen to your coach, practice everything at full speed so when the game comes, the jitters will be there, but once the first hit comes there's no excuse after that."
Last year's first-round pick went through a roller coaster rookie season. Guard Danny Watkins was immediately plugged in as the starter after he was selected with the 23rd-overall pick in 2011. Watkins did not have an offseason to adjust to playing guard after playing tackle exclusively at Baylor. At the time of his selection, Watkins was 26 years old, but only picked up the game of football at 22. The players were locked out last offseason and didn't have the chance to work with their coaches.
"It reminds me of what the CEO of IBM's desk must look like. Papers are just stacking up everywhere and that's kind of what it felt like a little bit for me," Watkins said of his rookie season.
On top of the lockout, Watkins did not get his contract done in time to report with his teammates so he was that much further behind. Watkins admitted to having to "put some stuff on the backburner;" things that he was unsure of because he had to move on to learning something new.
The Eagles acquired veteran guard Kyle DeVan after the final roster cutdown and he started over Watkins for the first four games of last season. Watkins was re-inserted back into the lineup before the Week 5 game in Buffalo and never looked back. Watkins is amazed that he's about to embark on his second NFL season.
"I can't believe how fast it's come and gone already," Watkins said.
The Eagles can't wait to see their most recent first-round pick take the field against a Cleveland Browns team that is sending out a rookie quarterback, running back and offensive tackle among its starters. While Cox will want to make the best first impression possible, it's important to remember what it took to get him to be a first-round pick in the first place.
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