What's next on Fletcher Cox's checklist with the Eagles? | Early Birds

Good morning, Eagles fans. The offseason schedule picks up this week with rookie mini-camp beginning on Friday. The Eagles will hold their first organized team activity on May 22. The next five weeks will be busy with Eagles updates, so make sure to follow along on Philly.com.

This is an offseason edition of the Early Birds newsletter, which will come every Wednesday for the next few months. If your friends haven’t subscribed to Early Birds, it’s free to sign up here. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.

— Zach Berman

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Fletcher Cox’s next goal? Winning defensive player of the year.

Can Fletcher Cox win defensive player of the year?

Fletcher Cox won a Super Bowl, has earned multiple Pro Bowl invitations, and has been first-team all-pro. When asked what the next box is to check off, Cox was prepared with an answer.

“The next thing for me is to be defensive player of the year,” Cox said. “That’s my thing, and I’ll be working toward that.”

Cox will likely need more sacks to earn consideration for the award. He’s established himself as one of the top defensive linemen in the NFL regardless of sack production — he had 5.5 last season and has never reached double-digits — because he affects the game in ways not always seen on the stat sheet. When Cox is double-teamed, it helps the player on both sides of him. When he gets interior penetration, the quarterback cannot step up in the pocket and the edge rushers reach the quarterback quicker. When he occupies blockers, linebackers have an easier time behind him.

But all of the defensive linemen who’ve won the award had the stats to back it up. Aaron Donald finished with 11 sacks last season, Khalil Mack had 11 sacks in 2016, and JJ Watt averaged 19.5 sacks during the three seasons he won the award. When Warren Sapp and Dana Stubblefield won the award as defensive tackles in the 1990s, it came with double-digit sack seasons.

So if Cox is going to earn defensive player of the year, he’s going to need a career season. Both Sapp and Stubblefield won during their age-27 season. That’s how old Cox is going to be for most of the 2018 campaign.

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Thoughts on recent Eagles news

Since Early Birds came out last week, the Eagles signed wide receiver Markus Wheaton and quarterback Joe Callahan. News also broke that Tim Jernigan could miss the beginning of the season. Some quick thoughts on each:

  • Wheaton should compete for the Eagles’ No. 5 (or No. 6, if they carry that many) wide receiver job. He’s a few years removed from notable production, and he won’t crack a top four of Alshon JefferyNelson AgholorMike WallaceMack Hollins. I don’t even know whether he’ll beat out Shelton Gibson. He’ll get a look during training camp. But there’s talent and experience there for the Eagles to examine.
  • Callahan would seem to be a spring/summer arm, somewhat comparable to Matt McGloin last year. You likely won’t see Carson Wentz pass in a game until Week 1 at the earliest. My guess is the Eagles could even manage Nick Foles’ workload. Nate Sudfeld will get a lot of work, but the Eagles need other passers, too. Unless there’s an injury or a trade, I don’t see a way for Callahan to make the roster.
  • If Jernigan misses time, Haloti Ngata would become a starter. The Eagles have Destiny Vaeao and Elijah Qualls returning behind him; both were on the roster last year, so you’re not talking about camp bodies. Plus, the Eagles will likely use either Michael Bennett or Brandon Graham on the interior on passing downs. So the Eagles could survive a relatively short-term absence. Perhaps they look around for a cost-effective depth option, but I don’t see them going into panic mode.

Carson Wentz’s price tag is going up

If you missed it last week, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan signed a record-breaking, five-year, $150 million contract extension with $100 million guaranteed. Eagles fans should pay notice to this, because that record will soon be broken by other top quarterbacks eligible for contract extensions. And one of them will be Carson Wentz, who is eligible for a new deal after the 2018 season. There’s a fifth-year option on Wentz’s deal, so he could be under contract through 2020. But if Wentz recovers and returns to form, the Eagles will likely strike a deal that has “record-breaking” in front of it. The Eagles are aware that Wentz will be expensive, and they’ve already started preparing a strategy to continue building the roster even with a big number attached to their starting quarterback. That includes accumulating 2019 draft picks to get players on rookie contracts. Until then, the Eagles can take advantage of Wentz’s rookie deal. And you can be sure anytime a quarterback signs a new contract — Aaron Rodgers might be next — this conversation will come up again.

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Carson Wentz could be in line for a big pay day after this season.

What you need to know about the Eagles

  • The Eagles need a slot cornerback. They drafted Avonte Maddox in the fourth round. Will Maddox be the answer? Paul Domowitch explores.
  • Doug Pederson’s original contract had four guaranteed years and a fifth-year option. The Eagles picked up that option, and Pederson is now under contract through 2020. 
  • Looking for Eagles tickets? Make sure you’re in front of your computer or by the phone on Thursday.
  • If you missed the Philly.com Eagles chat on Tuesday, read the transcript to find out what was on the minds of fans.

 From the mailbag

Does Nick Foles compete for a starting job if Carson Wentz would have a setback and he plays lights out for 1-6 games in his place like he did in the NFC Championship win and first Super Bowl win? — Jason, via email

Interesting question. I’ll write this sentence all summer because I believe it to be true: As long as Carson Wentz is healthy, he’s the Eagles’ starting quarterback. Even if Nick Foles needed to start as a replacement and played like he did in the championship game and the Super Bowl, Wentz is the starter when ready to play. But in the scenario you suggested, what does a setback for Wentz look like? If he’s coming off a major knee injury and has a setback that forces him to miss six games, my guess is the Eagles would be especially cautious with him. A setback to a torn ACL would mean the Eagles exercise extreme patience in allowing Wentz to return to the field. But whenever Wentz is fully healthy, he’s the starting quarterback.

I don’t think the Eagles are finished adding to their roster. LeGarrette Blount signed in May last season and Corey Graham signed in August. That should give you an example of how team-building continues throughout the offseason (and into the season). Starting Wednesday, any player the Eagles sign will not count against the compensatory pick formula. That will factor into their thinking, too. At the same time, the Eagles don’t have many holes. I still think they add a third safety. They can see what they have during OTAs and mini-camp and decide thereafter. That’s also the deepest position remaining on the free-agent market. Then they can always add depth pieces for the sake of competition. So, in short: Yes, I believe the Eagles will continue pursuing free agents.

I’d be surprised if Cameron Johnston does not have competition during training camp and the preseason. That’s still more than two months away, though. Maybe they add a punter for OTAs in the next few weeks, too. The Eagles clearly like Johnston, bringing him back after seeing him last season. And I actually thought he had a good preseason last year with a net average of 43 yards on his punts. But that shouldn’t be enough to keep Johnston from having a summer challenger.