4.30, 128: Jason Fox, Miami OT:
When the Lions tendered RFA offers to guard Manny Ramirez, guard/center Dylan Gandy, and tackle/guard Daniel Loper, I was surprised. Surely, I figured, with the addition of Rob Sims, and the healthy return of Stephen Peterman, one of those three would be let go. All three had a chance to prove their worth as a starter last season—and none have such unknown upside that they must be kept around, regardless of production. I named a tackle to groom behind Backus, and a center to groom behind Raiola, as two of the Lions' draft needs; I figured either one or the other would be addressed.
We got a sneak preview as to which it would be when the Lions released Loper. As a swing guard/tackle, and no spot for him at guard, he’d have to make the roster as a tackle. Since he didn’t, that left only aging Jon Jansen as a viable OT backup, and his pass protection—never excellent—has degraded to where he can’t start at right tackle anymore. I immediately Tweeted that there was a roster space being carved out for a left tackle. @Reckoner67 asked if I meant Okung, and I replied, quote, “More like a 3rd/4th rndr.” Yeah, Twitter is literate like that.
Sure enough, when the Lions—finally—got back on the clock in the fourth round, they took their developmental tackle; Jason Fox of Miami. Fox is an interesting prospect. He has the prototypical LT frame: 6’-6 7/8”, 303 pounds, and 34.4” arms. He’s got plenty of experience, having started 47 games in 4 years at Miami, third-most in school history. Depending on who you ask, he’s either got very good, or average NFL-level lateral agility (keeping in mind that “average NFL-level” is “very good”). So, with that frame, that athleticism, and that pedigree, why was he there at the bottom of the fourth round?
Jason Fox didn’t start out as a left tackle; in fact, like a lot of premier pass protectors, he started as a tight end prospect. Coming out of North Crowley high school in Forth Worth, TX, Fox had played at tight end until switching to tackle his senior year. Measuring 6’-6 1/2”, and a probably-lanky 255 pounds, Jason Fox was Scout.com’s 25th-best offensive tackle in 2006. Interestingly, Rivals.com had Fox as the #16 tight end in his class; both considered him a four-star prospect. To the University of Miami, though, Fox was strictly a tackle, and he immediately proved them right.
He started the first three games of his true freshman year at right tackle, but switched to left in the third game due to an injury. He spent the rest of the season bouncing between the right and left sides. He was knocked out of the final game of the season with a dislocated elbow, but returned in time to start the MPC Computers Bowl [sheesh]. The coaches graded Fox out at 83%, second-highest on the team, and he was given the team’s highest effort grade. After not allowing a sack from either side all year, he was named first team Freshman All-America by CollegeFootallNews.com, and second team by Rivals.com and The Sporting News.
In 2007's spring practices, Fox was permanently switched from the right side to the left, and he started there for the remainder of his career. He graded out at 96%, notching five pancakes along the way. In 2008, he was named a team captain, and started 12 of 13 games on the left side. A sprained right ankle broke his career-long starting streak, but Fox still graded out at 97% for the season. He drastically upped his pancake count, to sixteen—including three each against Texas A&M, UNC and Cal. Fox scored his first, and only, career touchdown on a five-yard tackle throwback play against Florida State.
Fox’s senior season went almost—but not quite—according to plan. After starting the first 11 games, Fox missed the final regular-season game of the year with an irregular heartbeat. Fox also missed Miami's Champs Sports Bowl loss to Wisconsin, when an irritating knee injury finally got too painful to ignore—he and the coaches agreed it was more important that he get the surgery to fix it, so he could prepare for the draft. Still, Fox racked up 20 pancakes, allowed just one sack, and was first team All-ACC; there are no doubts about his production on the college level.
Of course, any time a player finishes his season with an injury, there are questions about whether he'll be back in time. The knee injury shouldn’t pose a problem; Fox participated in individual drills during rookie orientation. The irregular hearbeat, though, is more concerning. Fox was grilled about it in his post-draft con call, and got a little irked by the hubbub:
I would really prefer not to get into that if that’s okay . . . It was just a fluke thing. I’ve been totally cleared. I’ve been back for several stress tests. They just said it was a one-day thing and I passed all the tests with flying colors and told it will never happen again.
Okay, so the proof of the pudding is in the eating, right? It’s time for everyone’s favorite part, the only real tool anyone has for prognosticating NFL success: YouTube highlight reels!
I saw a lot to like on that clip. Fox shows really nice ability to trap and pull; what I like his how he pulls and then hits; there’s a nice pop when he reaches his target. He shows decent footwork and hands, in most cases locking on to his man and keeping said man in front of him. Fox is beaten a couple of times, and (from what I can tell) misses an assignment or two, but overall we see very smart, steady play.
Fox seems to have a special knack for trap and seal blocks in the running game; we see him spring Graig Cooper for long runs with a few of them—as an aside, how about that Graig Cooper, eh? One thing that concerned me: Fox rarely dominated in one-on-one pass protection; we didn’t see much in the way of driving into defenders, or pushing them to the ground. He was also overwhelmed on a bullrush a couple of times. It’s clear that he needs to add bulk and strength to that 6’-6 7/8”, 303-pound frame.
What do the experts think?
From Fox's NFL.com's draft profile page:
While Fox has been a starter for four years at both right and left tackle his foot agility and lateral range may be on the marginal side for a left tackle in the NFL. He is a tough athlete that has proven his willingness to play with pain. He still needs improvement in his temperament on the field. He does not always finish blocks off or look to punish opponents as often as he could. Fox’s status may drop some in the draft as he will need rehab on an injured knee that he was playing with during his senior season. He is not a natural knee bender and will play with his pads too high at times.
The National Football Post, via Yahoo!
A smooth, good-looking left tackle prospect who displays great flexibility out of his stance, Fox has the athleticism to consistently reach the corner. He does a good job sliding his feet and redirecting in pass protection. He isn't a Velcro player and struggles locking onto defenders at the point of attack. He does a nice job extending his arms into blocks but isn't heavy-handed. Fox is more of a finesse run blocker who uses his footwork to angle defenders away from the play. However, he's explosive off the snap and does a great job reaching the second level and hitting a moving target. He is one of the most fluid offensive tackles in space I've seen and is an ideal zone-blocking scheme candidate.
NFL Draft Scout, via CBS:
Rarely does a player from "The U" rank among the more underrated senior prospects among his position, but entering his senior season that is precisely what left tackle Jason Fox was. A highly-touted prep prospect who emerged as an immediate starter for the Hurricanes as a freshman, Fox began his career at right tackle, but started the final three years manning the blind side. He'll need to prove his health after missing the final two games, including the Champs Sports Bowl loss to Wisconsin, after undergoing surgery on his lower left leg. Not as blessed athletically as some of the more highly-touted offensive tackles who will be drafted ahead of him, Fox's size, consistency and durability shouldn't be overlooked.
SI.com grades Fox out as a 2.59, a "future starter". Additionally, SI's Peter King said "Down the line, some league people I talked to like the developmental potential of Miami tackle Jason Fox to be a long-term tackle."
Fox offers a solid combination of football instincts and mechanics to get the job done. He's not the greatest of athletes, yet he has an understanding for the position, which will help him eventually develop into a productive player at the next level.
So where does this all leave Fox? Per logic, per Tom Kowalski, and per George Yarno, it leaves him as the favorite to back up both tackle positions, and eventually push Gosder Cherilus for the right tackle spot, while preparing to take over for Jeff Backus.
I know some people are going to scream when I point this out, but do you see a pattern emerging? "Tough.” “Smart.” “Solid.” “Instincts and mechanics,” “not blessed athletically,” “consistent and durable.” Yup, you can see where I’m going here. To quote my attempt to satisfy the Lions' draft shopping list:
I know he's not the elite ÜBERTAKKEL that everyone has been screaming for since Lomas Brown, but to be brutally, brutally honest, folks, I think the Lions would be happy to replace Jeff Backus with Next Jeff Backus.
I said that about Bryan Bulaga—and Fox is not the prospect Bulaga is, especially in the strength department—but that quote rings true for Fox, too. If he can stay healthy, and develop his body over the next season or two, “the Next Jeff Backus” could indeed be the best way to describe Jason Fox.