It has become a trend amongst Eagles fans to show blind loyalty to the secondary depth that stepped up and helped us make a late run into the playoffs in 2018-19. That group includes Rasul Douglas, Tre Sullivan, Cre’von LeBlanc, and Avonte Maddox. Rightfully so, seeing the way the defense held together while losing several key secondary members was impressive. Jalen Mills, Ronald Darby, Rodney McLeod, and Sidney Jones all struggled with injuries last season, yet return for 2019 and expect to compete for starting roles with the team.
The group that included Avonte Maddox is generally lumped together due to the team success that came when they were called to action. This team was on the verge of not even making the playoffs, and then suddenly almost pulled off the upset on the road in New Orleans in the Divisional Round. They deserve plenty of credit. But what do we really know about the players individually and if they are long-term pieces the defense can rely on?
Passing of the torch?
As far as Avonte Maddox is concerned, I can tell you the 2018 fourth round pick could very well be a key to the Eagles’ future on defense. To me, he compares very well to a current Eagle who is without a doubt the glue that holds the defense together: Malcolm Jenkins.
While Jenkins does have height and weight advantages on Maddox (6’0″, 200 vs 5’9″, 180), both are on the smaller side of their respective positions…what are their positions again? That brings me to the main point of my comparison. Jenkins has been a Swiss Army knife for the Eagles defense since signing with Philly in free agency. Throughout his career, Jenkins has played outside and slot corner, been a hybrid LB, and played both safety positions. He has had tremendous individual success as an Eagle in his diverse role, and the team defense has benefited as well.
Maddox, as a rookie no less, was used in a very similar role in his 13 regular season games, including 9 starts, and in starting both playoff games. Per ProFootballFocus:
“Maddox played 109 snaps at slot cornerback, 295 snaps at boundary cornerback, 226 snaps at free safety, and 170 snaps on special teams.”
Maddox’s success in different roles doesn’t show up in the box score, but PFF again was able to quantify the success he had in 2018.
“Maddox played 391 coverage snaps and allowed just 218 yards, which equals out to only 0.56 yards allowed per cover snap – second out of 132 qualifying cornerbacks. In addition, Maddox allowed a passer rating of just 59.9 when targeted, also ranking fourth at the position.”
In watching film of Maddox, a few things stuck out. First, was his 4.39 40 speed. Maddox demonstrates incredible speed on his back pedal, allowing him to keep his eyes on both his assignment and the quarterback’s eyes. There are several instances last season of Maddox still in his back pedal, not needing to turn his hips to stay with his man, and being able to make the read, plant, drive back toward the ball, and break up the pass or make the pick. Maddox didn’t complete the catch in a few instances, so his hands may be an area of improvement, but he still made the play by deflecting the ball away.
When playing on the outside specifically, Maddox demonstrates great awareness of where he is on the field, keeping the opposing receiver on his outside hip and using the sideline as an extra defender. When most receivers are going to be able to beat you on a jump ball, using the sideline to your advantage is a must, and Maddox demonstrated that many times as a rookie.
The other thing that stuck out was Maddox’s ability to tackle. Few corners are elite tacklers, and I don’t think Maddox is quite there, but again, harping on his size, Maddox was able to hold his own against both opposing receivers and running backs, including some of the elite. Not only did Maddox do a great job on open field tackles as a corner, but when utilized in the slot or as a safety, he often was responsible in his contain and had several run stops for a loss or little-to-no gain.
The reoccurring thing here has obviously been his size. 5’9″, 180 lbs is definitely toward the bottom of the league (no pun intended) as far as measurements. Over the course of a full season and in a larger role, could Maddox be exploited by some of the more elite offensive weapons? Possibly. We also don’t know if his body can withstand a full season in a full role, which has been an issue that has plagued this Eagles secondary. However, Maddox has already shown the intelligence and the techniques to offset the advantage some may have over him in a physical sense and proved himself as an asset to this defense.
There is a lot of discussion over how the Eagles’ secondary depth chart will shake out this season. I think that while many seem to be ready to riot if it doesn’t pan out exactly how they want, it isn’t really all that important who is named the Week 1 starting cornerback, or safety, or whatever for that matter. The Eagles have shown over the past few years that their success has been directly related to their depth and versatility.
In the NBA we often talk about “position-less basketball” and how the Golden State Warriors had their “death lineup” where players were out of their normal positions yet was one of the most devastating lineups in NBA history. The Eagles secondary features many pieces who could be significantly more valuable if used in multiple roles to not only keep guys fresh, but to confuse offenses, dictate matchups, and use players to their strengths and limit their weaknesses. Jenkins, Maddox, and Mills all have some safety and corner traits and ability. Maddox, Jenkins, and Jones have all shown the ability to cover the slot. The list goes on, and the point is regardless of how they decide to order the depth chart officially, I think there will be a lot of opportunity for members of this secondary barring significant injury.
With that said, I do believe that of all the “corners,” Maddox at this point carries the highest upside, and while making projections for counting stats for a guy in a defensive secondary seems futile, this is my lock for Maddox:
Barring significant injury, Avonte Maddox will play the most snaps of any secondary player not named Malcolm Jenkins. Maddox has proven to be both versatile and productive, and should be able to make a significant leap with a full offseason and a defined role, despite how random and chaotic that role may be. Maddox should thrive in every position he is put in.