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Why are D-linemen getting so rich? Chris Jones, Fletcher Cox show us

Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones, shown here celebrating with his son after defeating the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2023 Super Bowl, has become the highest paid lineman in NFL history. (AP Photo/Steve Luciano)

Two Mississippi State football legends were huge in the news over this past weekend. Within a 24-hour window, two blockbuster NFL stories shook the league.

One, Kansas City Chiefs great Chris Jones, a Houston, Miss., native and former Bulldog, signed the most lucrative contract ever for a defensive lineman when the Chiefs agreed to pay him $158 million over the next five seasons. That’s roughly $31.8 million per season — about one hundred grand a year more than Los Angeles Rams superstar Aaron Donald makes.

Rick Cleveland

Two, Yazoo City’s Fletcher Cox, another former Bulldog, announced his retirement from the Philadelphia Eagles, thus ending one of the most productive careers of any defensive lineman in pro football history.

Cox retires at age 33, still playing at an elite level, still double-teamed by any offense that cares anything at all about the health of its quarterbacks and running backs.

Jones signs one of the richest deals in NFL history at age 29. It says much about Jones’ worth that the Chiefs would pay that many millions for that many years when he will play his next next game at the ripe, old football page of 30.

Cox and Jones share many more attributes, besides the fact they have made enough money to buy their hometowns. To wit:

  • Both are clearly the largest men on the field any time they step onto a field. In a sport that puts a premium on height, weight and muscle, both still stand out. Even on a TV screen, they make other huge men appear smallish. Jones is listed at 6 feet, 6 inches and 310 pounds. If anything, he appears even bigger. Same goes for Cox, listed at 6-4 and 310.
  • Both are remarkably quick and fast for their girth. Both know how to use their long arms and strong hands to shed blockers. Both are athletic enough to play inside or on the edge.
  • Both grew up in small-town Mississippi, where Friday night high school football is king, and where little boys grow up dreaming of being part of that royalty.
  • Both stand as living, quarterback-ravaging proof of why defensive linemen have become among the highest paid position players in football, much more highly valued than touchdown-scoring running backs who once commanded the higher salaries. You see, if you do not assign two offensive linemen to block people like Cox and Jones, they blow up anything you try to do offensively. Two blockers sometimes aren’t enough. And, of course, when you use two of your players to block one of them, that usually frees up another defender to make the play.
  • Both have been consistent Pro Bowlers and both own Super Bowl rings. Indeed, Jones now has three. Both are among the primary reasons their teams won it all.
  • Both seem as easy-going and pleasant out of uniform as they are dominating and disruptive when they don the helmets and pads. In small-town Mississippi terminology, they are good folks. They were raised right.
The football field where Fletcher Cox played high school ball is now known as Fletcher Cox Stadium. Credit: Rick Cleveland

Here’s a sample. In Yazoo City, the football facility is now called Fletcher Cox Stadium because of how he has given back to his high school alma mater. Last summer, Yazoo athletic director Tony Woolfolk remembered the first time he ever saw Cox. It was in the summer before Cox’s ninth grade year at Yazoo City High, where Woolfolk was then the head football coach.

Said Woolfolk, “There were a bunch of kids out on the field playing ball and one of them was at least a head taller and a whole lot faster than the rest of them. I pointed and said, ‘Who is that kid?’ Somebody said, ‘That’s Bug-eye Cox.’”


“Yeah, that’s what everybody called him back then. His granny named him that because his eyes kind of bulged,” Tony says. “It stuck. Over time, I shortened it to Bug. I still call him Bug, but I knew the first time I saw him, we had us one — a potential superstar. Even then, he was bigger than everybody else and he could really, really run. You know Bug ran the 4 x 100 relay in track for us.”

Imagine: A defensive tackle fast enough to run sprints. That pretty much says it all.

Funny thing: At first, Cox’s mama didn’t want him to play football because she was scared he would get hurt. Said Woolfolk, “I told her not to worry about that. The only worry was how many people he was gonna hurt.”

Jones, too, has given back to Houston High School, where he presented the Houston Hilltoppers athletic program a $200,000 check in 2022. 

“If I hadn’t have come from here, I wouldn’t have my attitude,” Jones once told a reporter when asked about the contribution. “If I were given a silver spoon, I’d probably be different. Your background kind of makes who you are. After you see the houses I grew up in, and the hardships I faced, it makes me almost more excited where I am today.

“It makes me want to give back more.”

One thing certain: With this new contract, the three-time Super Bowl champion has plenty more to give.

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