Suddenly, Avonte Maddox is an important defensive cog for the Eagles, though he played no defensive snaps the first three weeks of the season.
The fourth-round rookie from Pitt is the player the coaching staff keeps reaching for — at first just to back up veteran Corey Graham, who struggled against Tennessee, in Graham's first game as the injury replacement for starting safety Rodney McLeod. Maddox had never played safety, so this was a challenge, but he was up for it. He notched his first NFL interception that day, though he also was in coverage for the overtime touchdown that ended the game.
That game moved Maddox ahead of Graham, and Maddox played every snap of the Eagles' loss to Minnesota at safety. Then, last Thursday at the Giants, nickel corner Sidney Jones went down with a hamstring injury covering a punt. So, as Maddox buckled his chinstrap to head onto the field, he got a message from defensive backs coach Cory Undlin.
"All of a sudden, whatever the play number was, 'Hey, man, listen, you gotta play the nickel.' … That was always the plan, if something happened to Sid, he would go in there. Didn't even blink," Undlin said Monday.
Though it happened early in the second quarter, and Maddox hadn't planned on playing any nickel against the Giants, this was less of a stretch than the abrupt move to safety. Maddox worked as a nickel corner all through OTAs and training camp. Maddox began the season as Jones' backup, until he was pressed into safety duty, mainly because he had a similar body type and skill set to McLeod, at 5-foot-9, 184, and the coaches thought he was unflappable.
The Giants game kind of tested that last part.
"He's a smart guy, he's mature beyond his years," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "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."
Schwartz said that Maddox "never bats an eye, no matter what you're asking him to do, special teams, you know, any position on defense."
Corner Ronald Darby said that Maddox "came in flying from sideline to sideline," when he first stepped onto the practice field as an Eagle.
Maddox said in training camp that he enjoyed learning new things, and "if I don't get anything, I ask questions."
Undlin said he liked Maddox from the day he met him, at Pitt, during the draft process.
"I spent some time with him at his pro day, and talked to him. All the research we did, there was no question marks on, 'Can the guy learn?' He's a sharp kid," Undlin said. "He gets ball. He loves ball. And if you get it, you love it, you've got a chance. You could be the smartest guy, but if you don't love it, it doesn't matter."
Maybe Maddox knew something about how positional plans can change last week, when reporters interviewed him about becoming a starting safety.
"I'm a DB," he said. "I can play anywhere they need me to play."
"Avonte had played so many snaps [at nickel] – probably close to as much as Sid had, through OTAs and training camp — that when Sid got hurt, there was no question," Undlin said. "Avonte knew he was next. The players knew he was next."
It will be interesting to see how the Eagles work their secondary this week against Carolina. Jones almost certainly won't be back this quickly. There has been no word on Graham, who was injured against Minnesota. On Tuesday, the team brought back corner Dexter McDougle, who played eight games for the Eagles last season after arriving in a trade with the Jets. McDougle was released last November and has since spent time on the rosters of the Saints, the Jaguars and the Lions, spending this year's preseason with the Jags. The Eagles waived/injured defensive tackle Destiny Vaeao, a rotational player who sacked Eli Manning last week and played 28 defensive snaps in the game.
Corner Rasul Douglas took over at safety against the Giants, when Maddox had to move to nickel corner. There are a lot of things the coaching staff likes about Douglas, too, especially his knowledge of the defense, but Schwartz has resisted moving him, because he lacks lateral quickness.
It seems likely Maddox will be a safety in base, then move to slot corner in the nickel. The team could keep Douglas at safety in nickel, or use the extra prep time to ready backup safeties Deiondre' Hall or Tre Sullivan. Or maybe McDougle can play safety.
Hall, who played seven games, mostly on special teams, for the Bears in 2016, has been used exclusively on special teams since joining the Eagles in a trade right before the season started. Sullivan, up and down from the practice squad, is a former linebacker who has only appeared in two games so far.