Deon Hodges first met Fletcher Cox in June 2013. He was a former Southern Miss wide receiver who was cutting his teeth in the personal training business at a gym in Madison, Miss., just 15 minutes from Cox's offseason home.
Cox was getting ready for his second NFL training camp with the Eagles and was looking for a place to train during the offseason when he wasn't up in Philly with his teammates.
"He came in to our gym and worked out with the general manager,'' Hodges said. "The general manager introduced us and said you guys might be a good fit.
"The rest is history. We clicked in those first couple of sessions and Fletch said, 'I'm going to commit to you and we both can come up in our professions together.'''
Cox has been a man of his word. While many professional athletes with a resume as impressive as his – three Pro Bowl invitations, three second-team all-pro selections, and a Super Bowl ring in seven NFL seasons – might opt to switch to a trainer with a bigger reputation and a stable of established NFL clients, Cox has spent every offseason working his tail off with Hodges at D1 Training.
"Even with all of his success, he's still just another athlete in my program,'' Hodges said. "There isn't a diva mentality [with Cox], or 'I don't want to do this' or 'I don't want to do that.'
"He's just like my college kids and just like my high school kids. He's bought into me in the offseason, and that's the beautiful thing about it.''
The Super Bowl title didn't make Cox fat and happy. In fact, it did just the opposite. After taking a couple of weeks off to enjoy the spoils of the Eagles' Lombardi conquest, he went back to the gym and worked harder than ever with Hodges.
"It helps being in tune with him mentally and understanding what he wants, and always being on him about not getting fat and happy and being a guy who disappears,'' Hodges said.
"I keep telling him, 'Hey, at some point, they're going to draft your replacement. What are you going to do about that?' ''
Cox, who will turn 28 in December, reported to the Eagles' offseason training program last spring with a new goal. A very ambitious goal. But one he certainly has the talent to achieve: NFL defensive player of the year.
Despite being constantly double-teamed, Cox already has three sacks, 17 quarterback pressures and hits, and five tackles for losses. Last year, he had 5½ sacks, 36 pressures/hits, and five tackles for losses for the entire season.
He's in the best shape of his career. He has played 87.2 percent of the defensive snaps in the first three games and been as dominant in the fourth quarter of all three games as he has been in the first.
Thanks to his commitment to training and nutrition, Cox has completely changed his body type. Earlier in his career, he had a little Pillsbury Dough Boy to him. Not anymore.
"He's really bought into being Mr. Jacked Up and not being flabby or soft,'' Hodges said. "I call him 'Dapper Fletch.' He's kind of changed up his approach to how he dresses. He's worked on being a big, smooth, sexy guy.''
Said Eagles' all-pro right tackle Lane Johnson: "He's leaner, stronger. He's eating a lot cleaner. I think he's more health-conscious than he was. When he's eating in the cafeteria, I don't really see any fried foods on his plate anymore. I don't see any processed foods.''
Because of his athleticism and the importance of speed and agility to his game, Hodges trains the 6-4, 310-pound Cox like a wide receiver rather than an interior defensive lineman.
Believe it or not, Cox was a sprinter and high jumper in high school. At the NFL combine before the 2012 draft, he ran a 4.79 40 and benched 225 pounds 30 times.
"I looked at Fletcher's tangibles and the way the game is going now,'' Hodges said. "It's transitioning to more of a hybrid player in there [at defensive tackle].
"I'd always give him the, we're-not-a-big-guy-we're-a-skill-guy talk. Let's be a skill guy. That's what I pride him on. Being a high-motor guy. Going in and chasing the play down. Demanding the double-team.''
Cox is a goal-oriented player, and Hodges has used that as an important motivational tool in his training.
"I remember when he first started working with me,'' Hodges said. "He said, 'I want to make the Pro Bowl.' Well, we did that. We went to Hawaii together. We went to DisneyWorld [for the 2016 Pro Bowl in Orlando].
"After going to DisneyWorld, he said, 'I don't plan on being here next year. I don't plan on coming back to the Pro Bowl. I want to be playing in the Super Bowl.' And it happened.
"That's kind of my motivational point with him in the offseason. Finding what makes him tick. Last offseason, it was not being selected defensive captain.
"This year, it was, hey, you got the [big] contract. You got the Super Bowl. Let's not get fat and happy. Let's not be a guy that kind of fades away. Let's go and get defensive player of the year.
"I was finding out all these avenues to kind of poke at him and say, 'Hey, let's go get this thing.' And we're on track for it.''
Cox was named the Eagles' defensive captain in the offseason. It meant a lot to him. He mentions it with pride when he talks to reporters.
"He's proud of it,'' Hodges said. "He's proud to be considered a team leader.''
Off in the distance, there is another goal Cox has his eye on. The same one former Eagle Brian Dawkins achieved this summer.
A bronze bust in Canton.
"I was up in Philly for training camp this year and Fletch and I were sitting there watching the Hall of Fame ceremony,'' Hodges said. "He said, 'I really want that gold jacket.' ''
There could be a lot of tight ends on the field Sunday. The Titans regularly use two- and three-tight end sets. Since Delanie Walker went down with a broken ankle in Week 1, however, they primarily run the ball out of those formations.
That differs dramatically from the Eagles. In last week's 20-16 win over the Colts, they used two- and three-tight end sets on a whopping 57 of 77 offensive plays. But they mixed it up, throwing 29 times and running 28 times with "12'' (1RB, 2TE) and "13'' (1RB, 3TE) personnel.
If wide receiver Alshon Jeffery plays Sunday – he was cleared for contact Wednesday and but sat out Thursday's practice with a reported illness – you likely won't see nearly as much "13'' personnel, which means a lot less playing time for the No. 3 tight end, Josh Perkins.
But given the production they got from Zach Ertz and rookie Dallas Goedert – the two tight ends combined for 12 catches for 146 yards and a touchdown against the Colts – the Eagles likely will continue to play a lot of "12'' personnel, with Jeffery and Nelson Agholor at the two wide receiver spots.
"I think it just speaks to the talent in the [tight-end] room and the need we have to contribute on offense right now,'' said Ertz, referring to injuries to three of the Eagles' top four wideouts. "Once we get guys like Alshon back, I'm sure it will go back in the other direction, with more one or two tight ends.''
Last year, the Eagles used "12'' personnel 23.4 percent of the time and "13'' personnel 7.9 percent. In the first three games this season, their use of "12'' has jumped to 34.7 percent and their use of "13'' to 16.2 percent.
Goedert, who had played just 17 snaps in each of the first two games, played 55 against the Colts. He had seven catches for 73 yards and a 13-yard touchdown on the Eagles' first possession. He had four catches for 46 yards in "12'' personnel and three catches for 27 yards and his TD in "13''.
Ertz had five catches for 73 yards, including one for 28 yards in "12'' personnel and four for 45 yards in "13''.
Ertz has a team-high 21 receptions in the first three games. Eleven of them have been in "12'' personnel, four in "13,'' and six in "11'' (1RB, 1TE).
Ertz said the Colts initially played their base defense against the Eagles' "12'' and "13'' personnel groupings. But once they started going no-huddle, they switched to nickel.
"Thirteen [personnel] is interesting because they sometimes view Josh as a wide receiver,'' Ertz said. "Last year, at the beginning of the season, when it was Trey [Burton] and I [in multiple-tight end sets], we mostly saw base the first two weeks. Then, after that, we saw nickel the rest of the year.''
Goedert showed last week against the Colts that, even though he wasn't required to do a lot of blocking at South Dakota State, he's becoming very efficient at it, which helps keep defenses guessing when he and Ertz are on the field together.
"A game like last week against a team that moves their front a lot is more about being right mentally,'' Ertz said. "You're not really getting the one-on-one drive-block scenerios too often.
"So it's important to be on point in terms of communication and where you're supposed to be and when you're supposed to be there. I'm looking forward to seeing how he does this week. The Titans are a physical defense. They're a lot like the Redskins. It's going to be a good test for him blocking-wise.''
–The Colts converted just 2 of 12 third-down opportunities against the Eagles. Through their first three games, the Eagles are second in the league in third-down defense (27.0 percent). Opposing quarterbacks have a 53.9 passer rating against the Eagles on third down. That includes a 53.5 completion percentage and just 4.9 yards per attempt.
–The Eagles have held opponents to 3.3 yards per carry on first down and 1.9 yards per carry on second down.
–Just 18 of the Eagles' 77 offensive plays against the Colts were run with Carson Wentz under center. Ten of those 18, however, were on their game-winning 17-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.
–The Eagles have had seven touchdown drives in their first three games. None has had fewer than eight plays. Four have been 11 plays or more. Last year, 20 of the Eagles' 45 touchdown drives were six plays or fewer.
–The Eagles have five rushing touchdowns in the first three games, including three by Jay Ajayi. Last year, they didn't get their fifth rushing TD until the ninth game of the season.
–Carson Wentz was 2-for-3 for 62 yards on throws that traveled 20 or more yards last week. He had a 34-yard completion to running back Wendell Smallwood that traveled 25 yards, and a 28-yard completion to tight end Zach Ertz that traveled 22 yards. Nick Foles was 2-for-8 for 64 yards on 20-plus-yard throws in the first two games.