In 14 games this season the Eagles have had ten different starting lineups in the secondary – if you include slot cornerback -- only one player has started in three of the five spots. Avonte Maddox had been juggling safety and slot before an injury sidelined him for three games, but he added outside corner to his resume Sunday.
And the rookie was outstanding in the Eagles’ 30-23 win over the Rams.
“He’s been Johnny on the spot,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “We’ve missed him when he wasn’t in there. He has great speed. Plays with a lot of energy. And as long as he’s one of the 11 on the field, we’ll find a spot for him somewhere.”
Maddox will likely be back on the outside when the Eagles host the Texans Sunday. He won’t be there necessarily because that’s where he’s best suited, although that’s possible. Maddox could conceivably start at one of three positions next season.
But his versatility could allow the Eagles to use him in multiple roles like they do with safety Malcolm Jenkins.
“He’s already shown it,” Jenkins said. “The younger you are when you’re exposed to that, the better.”
The Eagles still have a lot at stake with two games left, but Maddox said that he would be up for the challenge next year.
“It would be exciting,” Maddox said. “You got to have a mindset that changes when you go to different positions. You got different things coming, you got different calls, you got to know where you got to be.”
Here’s a closer look at Maddox and how he’s managed to excel at three positions – despite having never played one – in his first NFL season:
Maddox played primarily inside in college at Pittsburgh and that is where the Eagles envisioned him when he was drafted in the fourth round.
Jenkins: He was pushing Sidney Jones in camp for that slot position.
Jones eventually won the job, but when he got injured against the New York Giants in October, Maddox stepped in, even though he had been playing safety (more on that later).
Schwartz: He’s a smart guy, he’s mature beyond his years. From the time he’s got here, there really hasn’t been a situation where things were too big for him. He’s just got a great attitude. When we said, ‘Hey, we need you to take some safety reps.’ He was like, ‘Okay.’ We said, ‘Hey, you have to go in there and play the nickel.’ [He said], ‘Okay.’ Those guys with that low blood pressure, that serves them well in stressful situations like that.
Maddox’s (No. 29) assignments inside were Russel Shepard (No. 87) and Odell Beckham, Jr. The latter receiver, one of toughest covers in the league, got inside on a couple slant routes, but Maddox bottled up the former. On this play, he had man-to-man coverage against Shepard and used inside leverage to not bite on a double move.
Maddox hasn’t been perfect, partly because he’s had to move around so much, but he’s had some tough matchups in the slot. He’s only 5-foot-9, 184 pounds, so he should match up well against smaller receivers like the Cowboys’ Cole Beasley (No. 11).
He kept him in check in a November meeting, but had a little too much depth on this short third down conversion.
Maddox: He’s quick. He gets in and out of breaks. That’s the most challenging thing with him. He gives you a lot of double moves. You go to know your leverage.
That was a difficult assignment, considering the circumstances, but Maddox got beat here when Beasley got off his jam near the line.
The task may change against bigger receivers, whether they line up primarily in the slot, or outside receivers slide in.
Maddox: [Bigger receivers] try to ward you off a little more. So it’s harder to get around him. He’ll use his length to stretch out and catch the ball. You got to know what you’re going up against. You got to know what that player is going to do to you, so you have an advantage at the top.
He struggled on this play in the Saints game against the 6-3 Keith Kirkwood (No. 18).
There are several starting outside corners of Maddox’s size, but most teams prefer taller guys. Maddox’s height is a liability, but as he’s showed, he can compensate.
When free safety Rodney McLeod was lost for the season, Schwartz looked at his personnel and decided initially that he would split time in the post between veteran Corey Graham and Maddox.
Schwartz: When you play the nickel position you basically play a safety position for us. … Guys that can cross-train are important to us. Gives us a little bit of flexibility.
Maddox notched his first career interception just snaps into his first foray at safety. He had a tough task, however, and on the final play of the Titans game, slipped vs. receiver Corey Davis (No. 84) and couldn’t catch up before he made the game-winning catch in overtime.
Schwartz: It was a heavier lift for him way back in the Tennessee game when he moved into the safety position, even though there’s some carry over from your nickel, you’re seeing the game completely different and there was a little bit of on-the-job training there.
But Maddox has some of the same traits as McLeod.
Schwartz: He can cover wide receivers. He’s got great range. Has really good eyes for the football.
In the Giants game, before he moved to the slot, he saved a touchdown when he ran down running back Saquon Barkley (No. 26) from centerfield. The Eagles would eventually hold the Giants to a field goal.
Schwartz: It saved us four points and that’s what a free safety should do, suck up all those runs that escape the front.
In the Jaguars game two weeks later, Maddox showed that he could play up at the line against the run. He raced into the backfield unblocked on this third and one and recorded a tackle for loss.
Jenkins: A strong safety to me, it just shows your understanding of the defense. Do you understand run fits, run gaps, can you get off blocks? The most impressive part of Avonte’s game is his ability to go in and understand the defense.
Later in the game, he put several skills on display when he forced a fumble. Maddox back pedaled into a zone, had eyes on the play, covered ground and put his head on the ball to knock it loose to Jenkins (No. 27).
Schwartz: Some takeaways sort of just happen. There’s some that you earn. I thought that was one that was earned. He did a good job of cutting his coverage. He did a good job of getting through that tackle.
Maddox missed three games with knee and ankle injuries he suffered on the same play in New Orleans. He found out late into last week that he would start on the outside against one of the most explosive passing offenses in the NFL.
Schwartz: He played a lot of preseason ball outside … so it wasn’t his first rodeo when it came to doing that.
But it’s doubtful the Eagles expected Maddox to play as well as he did. He was targeted six times and allowed only one catch for eight yards. He notched an interception, two pass breakups and three tackles.
Schwartz: I don’t know if we win that game without Avonte.
On the Rams’ first drive, they went at him on third and 11. Maddox dropped into a zone, kept his eyes on quarterback Jared Goff, and despite his length, reached back and knocked the ball before it got to receiver Josh Reynolds (No. 83).
Two series later, Goff went back to Reynolds. The pass was thrown inside of its target, but Maddox stuck his foot in the ground and made a diving grab for his second pick of the season.
Maddox: We were in [quarters] zone. That’s basically man [defense] out there.
Pederson: The interception was a thing of beauty.
Schwartz singled out Maddox’s tackling on the Rams’ final drive as they tried to tie the score. On second down, with 20 seconds left, Goff dumped to Todd Gurley (No. 30), who made a poor decision to run inside. But Maddox broke off his man and tackled the Pro Bowl running back before he got out of bounds.
Schwartz: That’s a big-time play.
Goff had to rush to the line to spike the ball with four seconds left. Before the half, the Rams were in a similar situation, and on Goff’s last two passes, he went at Maddox. But the cornerback knew the circumstances and played Reynolds ideally as he ran corner routes into the end zone.
On the last play of the game, Goff went back to Reynolds. Schwartz blitzed, so Maddox knew the ball would come out quick.
Maddox: I didn’t hit him hard. I was just standing there. He collided with me and at the point in time I’m looking at the ball and I’m just going to go up and get a hand on it.
He didn’t get a hand on it, but it didn’t matter. Goff’s pass sailed long and the Eagles had pulled off the upset.