When Doug Pederson was recently asked for standouts during Eagles spring workouts, the first player he mentioned on the defensive side of the ball was Avonte Maddox. Maybe the coach had just bumped into him or was listing names alphabetically, but the proof has been there on the field for any objective observer.
He “has picked up where he left off,” Pederson said two weeks ago. “He’s looking really good.”
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Maddox had a fine rookie season, better probably than most expected from the fourth-round draft pick. But what has been evident in his play over the last month is that the second-year cornerback is taking the leap many successful players make during their first full NFL offseason.
“I feel like I know a lot more,” Maddox said Wednesday after a minicamp practice. “I’m still in here asking questions because I have to, but I got a better understanding of the defense, so I’m not just learning on the fly.”
Injuries to Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills have given Maddox and two other young corners Pederson also mentioned — Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas — opportunities to run with the first-unit defense. But it’s difficult to imagine that Maddox wouldn’t, at the least, be in slot had Darby and Mills been healthy.
He’s been on the outside along with Douglas in base personnel — ahead of Jones — and in the slot in the Eagles’ sub packages.
It’s conceivable that Maddox may stay atop the depth chart even when they return. Darby (knee) and Mills (foot) first have to prove they’ll be ready by the season opener, but, even if they are, has either done enough to be handed back his job?
If there’s an obstacle keeping Maddox from starting outside, it’s that he’s a jack of many trades. While that is a feature that will likely sustain his career over the long run — as it has for Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins — it could keep him from finding a permanent home.
“It would definitely be good to find that spot, and be able to succeed in that one spot,” Maddox said. “But you’re more valuable when you’re able to do a bunch of things.”
Last season, Maddox played as many as three positions as the Eagles suffered through various injuries. He missed three games himself with ankle and knee sprains. But the shortage allowed the Pittsburgh product to show off his versatility.
Maddox first played free safety. Then he played in the slot — his natural position in college. And, finally, he played on the outside as the Eagles made their run to and through the playoffs. He had his mistakes, but he had as many game-turning moments.
There was the interception before the half at the Titans, the forced fumble in London vs. the Jaguars, and the picked Jared Goff pass in the December upset over the Rams. Maddox’s youth was exposed by the Bears in the first round of the postseason, but he rebounded the following week at the Saints.
“I know I can do better,” Maddox said of his rookie season.
But will his lack of length prevent him from getting an opportunity to win the outside job? Maddox is just a shade over 5-foot-9. His arm length is only 29-1/2 inches. Darby (5-11, 31-3/8), Mills (6-0, 31-1/8), Jones (6-0, 31-1/2) and Douglas (6-2, 32-3/8), are, by comparison, much longer.
Darby, though, is the only one of the four who can match Maddox’s combination of speed (he ran a 4.39 40-yard dash) and vertical leap (37 inches). (He ran a 4.38 and jumped 41-1/2 inches). And Maddox may have a considerable edge in intangibles, however difficult they may be to quantify.
“It’s not all about the size,” Maddox said. “It’s about your heart and if you’re going to compete. How you’re going to play? Do you know your opponent and [what] they do? There’s a lot that goes into it when you’re playing on an island by yourself.”
In theory, Maddox shouldn’t have been able to pull off the interception he made Wednesday. Carson Wentz’s seam pass over the slot corner to wide receiver Marken Michel looked like a winner from behind. But Maddox somehow rose and plucked the ball out of the air.
“I was playing a little bit of leverage. I knew that he would break back in,” Maddox said of Michel. “I feel like I would be able to undercut him that time. That’s what I did, and I just made a play on the ball.”
If Maddox keeps making plays, it will be hard for defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to deny him a starting chance. He pushed Jones, a second-round pick, for the slot position deep into training camp a year ago.
And he passed him this offseason, although it’s early in the process. The Eagles defensive backs have a saying in their meeting room, written on the white board — “Compete or die.” Maddox may have given a diplomatic answer when asked whether he deserved a starting spot.
“It doesn’t really matter,” he said, “as long as I’m able to contribute to help the team win.”
But Maddox hasn’t competed this spring like someone willing to take a back seat. He could be driving the secondary from one of several positions one day.