Versatility is a word that has very much become a building block for the Eagles defense. Whether it’s pass-rushers, cornerbacks, safeties or linebackers, a prototypical ‘Jim Schwartz’ player can typically play more than one role efficiently. Since his arrival in 2016, the defense has seen a complete turnaround. In his first year, the unit allowed a total of 1,024 passing yards on routes of 20 yards or more. After adapting his scheme so the corners were playing off-coverage, playing to their strengths and giving his pass-rushers more time to blow up the play, that number came crashing down and the Eagles became one of the toughest defenses in the league. But there’s one role that remains unfilled, despite numerous attempts.
Malcolm Jenkins does it to a degree, Patrick Robinson had his moments and Nate Gerry changed position because of it. The spot I’m referring to, is a hybrid defensive back. A bigger, stronger player who can hold his own on the back line, outside or play in the box. Whether it’s rushing the passer or making thunderous hits, Schwartz covets a player whom he can move around freely as a remote-controlled missile.
That position isn’t something new to the Eagles, in fact, the way they intend on utilizing a player such as Gerry’s versatility is extremely reminiscent of how they used Kurt Coleman. While his time in Philadelphia was less than impressive until a 93 tackle 2012 season, the fashion in which he was used may be replicated and refined. A Safety who can hold his own in cover-2 situations and drop into the box.
The willingness to find another key holder in this role was emphasized once again in the NFL Draft, when the Eagles decided to draft Pitt cornerback, Avonte Maddox. With a blazing 4.39 40-yard dash to his name, Maddox is much more than a speedy cornerback and his play over the last few years has proved that. A captain on the Pittsburgh team, Maddox saw his sacks rise from 0.5 in 2015, to 4 in 2017.
“It’s fun.” Maddox said on a conference call after the Draft. “You get a chance to take down the quarterback, make a play on third down. And get people off the field. Get a chance to go in and run around those tackles, maybe run through the C gap, B gap and be able to make a play for the team. Back here at [University of Pittsburgh] Coach [Pat] Narduzzi’s defense, we did a lot of corner blitzes and I’m excited if we can keep doing that.”
At 5’9, 180 lbs, he may not be the tallest defensive back on the field, but Maddox plays with a lot of firepower and hits like a freight train. More than willing to get down and dirty in the run game, this trait alone could be something that not only pushes him into a leading charge for the newly vacated nickel role, but also one that could be expanded.
“…This is a guy that fits in with our DB room.” Joe Douglas said after day 2 of the NFL Draft. “It’s a group of highly competitive guys, and he’s going to blend in perfectly, and even stand out to a degree. Even though he’s not the biggest guy, he will attack and support. He is a productive tackler for Pittsburgh.”
Oddly, Maddox doesn’t initiate a lot of contact when in press coverage. He is smooth in his back-pedal and relies on his flash-like speed to make up any ground lost. But, he keeps his arms compact and his frame ready to pounce as opposed to trying to stake his claim and make his presence felt. This could even (dare I say it) lead to some reps at safety…another area of need for the Eagles.
“I watch a lot of [Buccaneers CB] Brent Grimes. I watch [Texans CB] Tyrann Mathieu.” Maddox said when asked If there is a player he models his game after. “I also watch [Chargers DB] Desmond King. They’re guys I feel like I can compare myself to a little bit. Tyrann Mathieu off the blitz and off the quarterback. You got Brent Grimes who is tough, gritty and competitive on the outside. Desmond is a smart football player and you can tell on the field. I kind of compare myself to those guys.”
It’s safe to say that Maddox can tick much more than just one box for the Philadelphia Eagles. With the team consistently looking for defensive backs who can play inside the box and help over the top, this defensive back who totaled 51 passes defensed during his career as a Panther has the potential and the talent to succeed in any role the Eagles give him. Don’t be so hasty in pencilling Maddox as a ‘just’ a Nickel corner. He could be destined for a much bigger and varied role in a Jim Schwartz defense that thrives on unpredictability.
Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports