When the Eagles marched into a week one showdown against Atlanta, very few people would circle the defensive backfield as a perennial weakness. Why would they? The tandem of Jenkins and McLeod had support from Jalen Mills, who had come on leaps and bounds since being drafted in the seventh round in 2016 and Ronald Darby, who had it all to prove in a contract year. But as the injuries began to mount and teams began to exploit the defensive scheme, what was a great strength quite rapidly transformed into a weakness. After week 6 however, things appear to be trending in the right direction once again and that’s in large thanks to the form of one player in particular.
In the first few weeks of the regular season, fourth-round selection Avonte Maddox was used sporadically on defense. His presence couldn’t really be felt due to the depth elsewhere taking care of business and he was confined to standing out on special teams. That was until he burst onto the scene, picking off a beautifully wrapped present from Marcus Mariota. That, in many ways, could be considered the catalyst for what happened next.
The Eagles would lose Rodney McLeod to a heartbreaking injury, leaving them explicitly thin at safety considering Malcolm Jenkins makes most of his impact inside the box. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz faced a tricky decision. Does he look down at his practice squad for help, or does he gamble on the versatility he already has on the 53?
“Of all the guys on our roster, we thought Avonte had a lot of the same traits that Rodney had.” Schwartz said about the rookie corner who would fill those boots. “With Avonte playing the nickel position — there’s a lot of carryover between nickel and safety, also. So even though some things are new he’s got excellent quickness and great eyes for the football. He’s got the combination of being able to cover and being able to play the run. All the things we liked about him as nickel, we also like about him as a safety. And I think we’ll see more of him going forward in that role.”
Maddox has now started two games at Free Safety and to the untrained eye, it would be impossible to tell that this is his first exposure to the position. Having never played safety before, the former Pitt ballhawk jumped in without hesitation and has solidified an area of real concern. Not only that, but in last night’s game, he was named as the team’s sixth-captain. An honor that not many rookies are granted, let alone one that has only just earned a starting spot.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Maddox is everything you could want in a nickel cornerback. Speedy, willing and as reactive as a nuclear weapon, the slightly undersized DB packs quite a rapid punch after posting a 4.39 40-yard dash time at the NFL combine.
Someone who wants to be in the heart of the action, Maddox was able to end his career with 51 passes defensed despite being undersized, which says a lot about his desire and drive to outwork whoever stands in front of him. This could not be clearer than on two eyebrow-raising tackle in the last two weeks.
Against the Vikings, when Adam Thielen was driving towards the end zone having burned Jalen Mills, it was Maddox who utilized that quickness to fly down the field and make a saving challenge. Just last night on what may be one of the most explosive runs of the day from Saquon Barkley, it was the rookie corner who tracked down the Penn State icon and paced himself. Instead of flying in and whiffing on a tackle in a big spot, Maddox was calculated in his angle and put out the fire that Barkley began to burn, sweeping his legs from under him and cutting the play dead there and then.
His short-area quickness is astounding, but with patience being something that evaded his play during college, it’s been nurtured during his short time In the NFL. A rebalance of technique seems to have boded well for Maddox, who now moving away from the ball is showing no signs of giving up those ballhawking tendencies and has in-fact been extremely confident when attacking the ball at the point of the catch and making calculated tackles.
As if that wasn’t enough, he has been a complete force on special teams, ensuring that as a gunner, he forces several fair catches that would’ve otherwise been problematic for a lagging unit. Maddox has provided a source of explosiveness and urgency to a team that lacked both qualities in the opening quarter of the season.
In a defensive backfield that has lost two starting safeties as well as some shuffled cornerback depth on top of the constant problems they faced on the field, the one gleaming positive has been Avonte Maddox and his ability to keep the cap on this ‘bend but don’t break’ defense. Jim Schwartz applauds versatility and he may have found a home-run in a nickel corner who can seamlessly step into the shoes of a top-tier safety and provide a sense of stability to a unit that lacked it.
The Eagles pass defense has been criticized all year long, but you cannot say enough about how well Maddox has adapted not only to life as a starter as a fourth round pick, but in a position he’d never played in before and as a team captain.
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