A quick glance around the 32 rosters in football presents an overwhelming presence of Power 5 blue-bloods, a mix of mid-major talent, and a select handful of FCS, Division II, or Division III players. A league annually anchored on the importance of “getting it right” in the offseason, one of football’s most surprising breakout candidates has come via the collegiate path less traveled: Division II Colorado State-Pueblo.
Meet Morgan Fox, one of the early stories of 2021 and the current focal point of what has become a dominant Carolina Panthers defense three weeks into the season. At 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds, Fox was overlooked in the draft process despite finishing as the career leader for sacks in CSU-Pueblo’s program history. While, sure, it’s not Alabama or Ohio State, a 17-sack senior season would have led all NCAA FBS defenders, and despite the lack of prestige in his program, you can only face the competition in front of you, and Fox proved his tools could back up his impressive edge frame.
After going undrafted in 2015, Fox signed a UDFA deal with the Los Angeles Rams, where he bounced back and forth from the active 53-man roster and the practice squad. After suffering a torn ACL prior to the 2018 season, Fox’s role ultimately never progressed to anything more than a depth defender, leading to his free-agent deal with the Panthers this spring.
It’s been a match made in heaven, with Fox progressing into one of Matt Rhule’s cornerstone defenders during Carolina’s unblemished start.
What you don’t see on the box score becomes a glaring strength of Fox. He’s everywhere, and what he does along the Panthers’ front four, whether he’s lined up as a 3-tech, 4i, or outside the tackle’s shoulder as a 5-technique, has been a godsend for Phil Snow’s exciting, fast, and aggressive front seven.
Lined up as a 4i defender here, Snow presents a bear front to the New Orleans Saints with Haason Reddick (43) and Brian Burns (53) lined up outside. With little resistance from the Saints line, Fox is able to penetrate through the LOS to wrangle down Jameis Winston with relative ease. And while your local high school stud edge defender would have also had a sack on this play, I invite you to watch Fox’s get-off and explosiveness, eerily similar to that of Reddick’s who’s nearly 30 pounds lighter. Fox is shot out of a cannon on the play, reaching Winston nearly at the same time as Reddick with more yards traveled. He was unblockable against New Orleans, recording eight QB pressures and a turnover forced by pressure on 17 total pass rushes (47.1 pressure pct). It’s an attribute to his deployment within Snow’s scheme that has Fox as the straw that stirs the Panthers’ front.
Carolina’s defense, and any defense rather, is similar to a machine. For the vehicle to operate, every bolt and cog serves a role in the overall success of the instrument in use. While some parts serve more importance than others, everything must come together at one point or another if the operator envisions a smooth ride. In football, and for Snow, Fox has become the engine to the most dominant defense in football within the early stages of the 2021 campaign. Leaders in nearly every major defensive category, the Panthers have found the gem of gems in Fox on a team-friendly two-year, $8.1M deal that fits the intricate jigsaw Snow deploys each and every week.
Andrus Peat is 6-foot-7 with pterodactyl-like arms and Fox beats him off the jump. Engaging his hands before Peat, the rep is won before Winston is able to hand the ball off to Alvin Kamara. After a tick of patience, Fox throws Peat to the side, disengages, and gets upfield to wrangle down the swift-footed New Orleans ball-carrier. Once again lined up as a 4i, Fox’s ability to jump to the inside hip of Peat is the only way he makes the tackle, doing so with ease.
Through three weeks, seemingly every defensive snap has become tape to save on the long list of eye-popping reps for Fox. While the names of Burns, Reddick, Derrick Brown, and Shaq Thompson highlight Carolina’s front seven, look no further than No. 91 who’s quickly become the driving force to Snow’s defensive fortress early in 2021.
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