Avonte Maddox has established himself as a jack of all trades in his first three NFL seasons. He’s played nickel. He’s played the outside corner spot. He’s even played safety, starting four games there as a fourth-round rookie in 2018.
His level of competency at the three spots has varied. He struggled mightily on the outside last year, as bigger wide receivers took advantage of his lack of size (he’s just 5-foot-9).
But he played well inside as the Eagles’ primary nickel in 2019 and did a solid job at safety in those four 2018 starts.
“If I had played one position the whole time, I would be 100 percent great at it and it would be good,” Maddox said last week. “But you want to help the team.
“Sometimes, they need you to move around. You need to be versatile. I pride myself on not being a one-trick pony. I don’t want to be that guy that can only play one spot.
“If somebody goes down, I want to be able to step up and help. If I have to play outside linebacker, I’ll do that.”
With the signing two weeks ago of veteran cornerback Steve Nelson, Maddox is going back to where he is most effective, which is inside at slot corner.
“That’s where he belongs,” cornerback Darius Slay said last week. “He can play inside. He’s fast, smart. He’s a guy that’s willing to tackle.”
Slay actually recruited Nelson on social media after the Pittsburgh Steelers released the six-year veteran in March for salary cap reasons. While he may believe Maddox “belongs” inside, he also felt the Eagles needed to upgrade the other outside corner spot.
Before the Eagles signed Nelson, the three top contenders for the spot opposite Slay were Maddox, backup Craig James, and fourth-round rookie Zech McPherson.
Slay said opposing teams didn’t throw at him nearly enough last year, preferring to pick on Maddox and last year’s slot corner, Nickell Robey-Coleman, among others. He’s hoping that changes with Nelson’s arrival. Slay finished tied for 31st in targeted throws among the league’s cornerbacks last year with 75, according to Pro Football Focus.
“If you watched the film, if you watch football and understand the game, a lot of games I wasn’t targeted but a couple of times,” Slay said.
While that often was true, there also were games where Slay was picked on a lot and came up small. Seattle’s D.K. Metcalf had 10 catches for 177 yards against Slay and the Eagles in Week 12.
The Packers’ Davante Adams had 10 catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns in Week 13. The Cowboys’ Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper combined for 14 catches and 242 yards against the Eagles in Week 16.
Maddox played almost exclusively outside during his college career at the University of Pittsburgh. But the Eagles drafted him with the plan to move him inside as a potential replacement for Patrick Robinson, who played so well at nickel for Jim Schwartz during the Eagles’ 2017 Super Bowl run.
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But then, last year, the Eagles inexplicably signed another undersized corner, 5-foot-8 Robey-Coleman, to play nickel and moved Maddox outside. After releasing Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas right before the start of the season, Maddox became the last man standing on the outside opposite Slay.
“Size matchups are always a concern,” Schwartz said last year about Maddox trying to cover wide receivers that often were a half-foot taller than him. “But what I would say about Avonte is the only time he looks short is when he’s in the lunch line. When he gets on the field, he has never, in my mind, played small.”
The competitor in Maddox never will allow him to acknowledge he is overmatched on the outside. But in this era of back-shoulder fades and 50-50 balls, he understood he was at a significant disadvantage outside, even with sub-4.4 speed.
While he had a 37-inch vertical jump at the scouting combine before the 2018 draft, he has just 29 ½ inch arms and a 71 ½-inch wingspan. Eagles rookie wide receiver Devonta Smith has a 78 ¼-inch wingspan.
“I’m going to play hard wherever I’m at,” Maddox said. “Size don’t matter. It’s all about the heart to me, and technique and speed. That’s what makes you who you are.
“Did [size differential] hurt me last year? I think my eyes were my biggest problem last year. I got caught looking in the wrong place too many times. That was my downfall.”
Injuries also have been a problem for Maddox. He missed six games last season. He suffered an ankle injury in Week 3 that kept him out of three games, and then injured his knee in Week 14, which sidelined him for the last three games of the season.
He missed four games in 2019 after suffering a head/neck injury late in a Week 4 road win over the Green Bay Packers.
“I’ve been moving around a lot the past couple of years,” Maddox said. “Moving back inside, it’s a different game. Different steps. Different movements. But I’m definitely getting more comfortable with it and I like it.”
Maddox said he has to be much more vocal at nickel than when he was on the outside.
“It’s a lot different,” he said. “You’ve got to do a lot more speaking up. You kind of have to be almost a middle linebacker out there. You have to communicate.
“You’re the one that’s putting the guys in the right position. A lot of communication goes on at the nickel spot. You have to be smart in there and you have to be great with your eyes.”