Asked where he wants to improve this year, Avonte Maddox didn’t wait for the end of the question:
“Eyes! Eyes, eyes, eyes, eyes, eyes.”
That’s six “eyes,” if you’re counting, which would make Maddox an extremely lethal type of sand spider (Sicarius hahni), according to Google.
What Maddox has in mind for his fourth Eagles season is becoming a more effective cornerback, though, after compiling a horrendous 37.1 Pro Football Focus coverage grade last season. Opposing passers notched a 102.7 rating when targeting Maddox, who at 5-foot-9, 184 pounds perhaps was miscast as a starting outside corner opposite Darius Slay.
“Size! Size, size, size, size, size” might be more important to success out on the perimeter. But there’s not a lot Maddox, 25, can do about that.
Maddox told reporters Tuesday that new defensive backs coach Dennard Wilson “already preaches on it now. That’s one of his biggest emphases in our back end, is your eyes. Your eyes take you where you gotta go. … You get your eyes in the right spot, and you can’t get beat. You won’t be missing out on plays, big plays that you can make.
“I’ve been writing it down in my book every day – eyes, eyes, eyes. I get out on the field – eyes, eyes, eyes.”
Pressed for details, Maddox said he wants to look into the backfield less, focusing more closely on his man’s release, or in zone coverage focusing on his landmarks, getting to those spots before he looks up to see what the quarterback is doing.
Maddox, like every Eagle interviewed so far this spring, is enthusiastic about the new coaching staff led by first-time NFL head coach Nick Sirianni. New schemes and new coaches always offer hope to players who have struggled or plateaued.
Maybe being coached by Wilson, the Eagles’ third DBs coach in three years, will unlock the potential Maddox hinted at as a fourth-round rookie in 2018; his snaps, his overall PFF grade, and his coverage grade have declined each season since.
Maybe after fighting injuries the past two seasons, Maddox is due for a healthy year, and maybe new defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon’s scheme will be more back-end-friendly than the pass-rush-centered approach of Jim Schwartz.
Maybe Maddox will play inside more, with Cre’Von LeBlanc and Nickell Robey-Coleman dispatched into the free agency void.
Maddox has also played some safety. He said he’s allowing for all possibilities, isn’t set on one role.
“Wherever I’m needed, I’m always willing to play. Outside, inside, back end. … I just pay attention as much as I can in these meetings; I’ve got my pen and my notebook out, and I’m taking notes everywhere,” he said. “You never know. A lot of players go down. Guys have to move around the secondary, so I pride myself in learning all positions.”
Maddox first caught the previous staff’s eye with his ability to pick things up quickly. He said he has a simple secret.
“I was always told in my family, like, ‘Closed mouths don’t get fed,’ so if I keep my mouth closed and don’t ask questions, I would never know,” he said.
Maddox said he also feels that if he doesn’t understand something, odds are someone else in the room also doesn’t understand but might be more hesitant to ask.
“I want to be that guy that knows where he’s at, what he’s told, so there won’t be [any second-guessing],” he said.
Maddox is aware that he didn’t play well last season. Maybe the biggest surprise of the offseason has been that the Eagles haven’t made a big move at corner either in free agency or through the draft.
The top corner draftee is fourth-rounder Zech McPhearson. Maddox could be in line to start opposite Slay again, though it’s also possible that general manager Howie Roseman has a move left to make.
“I have a lot of pride in myself, and I have a lot of confidence in myself. … My confidence is sky-high. No matter what anyone says to me, I’m going to make sure I can be the best player I can be,” Maddox said. “If I’m not doing as well I’m going to hold myself accountable for that, and I expect everyone else to hold me accountable for it as well.
“Just me being me. I’m finding the things I need to fix. I’m working on the things I need to do to get better. I’m gonna come out this year and be [much] better than last year.”