What's next for Eagles if Jason Kelce, Fletcher Cox retire?

ByTim McManus ESPN logo
Thursday, February 15, 2024

PHILADELPHIA -- Eagles center Jason Kelce celebrated the Kansas City Chiefs' Super Bowl LVIII victory over the San Francisco 49ers about as hard as one might expect.

Videos from the Chiefs' afterparty at a Las Vegas nightclub Sunday show Kelce front and center on the DJ stage, dancing in a red and gold Lucha Libre wrestling mask that complemented his Kansas City-themed overalls. It completed an epic wingman tour that included jumping out of a suite shirtless in Buffalo (on the first night he met Travis' girlfriend, Taylor Swift) and partying with A-list celebrities in Vegas during the lead-up to the big game.

For at least one teammate, it provided further evidence that Kelce's playing days are coming to a close.

"There's no shot. You're telling me if he's going shirts-off in the games, gambling in the casinos, he's coming back? No way," tackle Jordan Mailata told NBC Sports. "He's having too much fun. He's out there living his life. And I'm going to miss him for sure, man."

Kelce has left his football future open-ended publicly despite signaling to his teammates at the close of the season that he plans to retire. The same can be said for his counterpart, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who has amassed six Pro Bowls and 70 sacks during his 12 seasons in Philadelphia.

"Fortunately he's only a phone call away, but it's just having him every day, having his presence is huge, and his presence is definitely going to be missed," defensive tackle Jordan Davis said of Cox. "Even looking at his locker, it's empty and I'm just like, damn. Damn."

With the season over and free agency looming, Kelce and Cox will need to firm up their intentions so the Eagles can plot a course accordingly. Should they both depart, the Eagles will be losing not only high-level production -- Kelce and Cox remained two of the best players on the team last season at ages 36 and 33 -- but two locker room pillars.

Both have spent their entire careers in Philadelphia. They have 25 years of NFL experience between them, playing in a total of 405 games. They represent half of the "core four" -- a group of longtime Eagles veterans that also includes defensive end Brandon Graham and tackle Lane Johnson -- that has seen it all ... and won it all during the 2017 campaign.

It's not clear who would fill the leadership void, or how effectively. Ideally, Jalen Hurts would continue his climb as franchise quarterback a year after inking a five-year, $255 million contract. Other players, such as receiver DeVonta Smith and linebacker Nakobe Dean, are also candidates. But all three are 25 or younger and still in the process of fully establishing themselves.

And the shift would come at a tenuous time. The Eagles collapsed down the stretch last season, finishing 1-6 after a 10-1 start. Coach Nick Sirianni's staff has been overhauled and he now finds himself in a prove-it year. The defense was abysmal, the offense underperformed, and now both sides of the ball will be adapting to new schemes, new coaches and, in some cases, new players.

There is a succession plan for both Kelce and Cox on the field. Cam Jurgens was selected in the second round of the 2022 draft to be Kelce's heir apparent at center. Right after that selection was made, Kelce called Jurgens "my favorite player in the draft," saying the Eagles had been asking him to evaluate centers coming out of college for the last two to three years. Jurgens was the one who compared most favorably to him.

The Eagles, meanwhile, spent first-round picks on a pair of Georgia interior defensive linemen in Davis and Jalen Carter the past two seasons. Cox has taken it upon himself to mentor both players.

"This will be year three for Jordan, two for JC. Normally, younger players make that jump between those two years. They're really, really good players, really smart," Cox said. "I think the next step for them is just not [being] afraid to be great. Those two boys, they've got a chance to be really great and special in this league."

Davis and Carter's play has lacked consistency, however, something that would need to change if Cox, the anchor of the defense, is removed. And no matter how good Jurgens ends up being, it will be near impossible to reach the heights of Kelce, a six-time first-team All-Pro destined for the Hall of Fame.

Cox joked that "there's no timeline on greatness" when asked about his decision-making process on whether to retire. But that time is just about here for both him and Kelce.

For more than a decade, the Eagles had four of the best players in team history patrolling the field and protecting their culture. It's a luxury few organizations experience and one that could be coming to a close for Philadelphia.