Philadelphia Eagles: Could Avonte Maddox actually beat out Sidney Jones in the slot?

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

Once dubbed a potential shutdown cornerback, could Sidney Jones actually lose out on the Philadelphia Eagles’ nickel job to fourth-round pick Avonte Maddox?

Though he may be one of the shortest players on the team, Avonte Maddox is already turning heads in his first summer with the Philadelphia Eagles.

As the team’s fourth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, it was always assumed that the young ball-hawk out of Pitt, who racked up eight interceptions, seven sacks, and 13.5 tackles for loss in colleges as one of the Panthers starting cornerbacks, would make the team as a rookie, but after three strong preseason games and a very impressive training camp by all accounts, it looks like Maddox may not just make the team, but step into a starting role right away.

That’s right, after spending four years predominantly as an outside cornerback in Pat Narduzzi‘s predominantly man-press scheme, Maddox looks like a natural in the slot, and could seamlessly take over the spot recently relinquished by Patrick Robinson going into camp.

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Much to the chagrin of presumed starter Sidney Jones.

As one of the most praised cornerback prospects over the last few seasons coming out of college, many assumed the Jones would be locking down number one receivers for years to come as a true number one cornerback, but after suffering an untimely Achilles injury at his Washington Pro Day, things haven’t come quite so easy for the former Husky.

After missing all but one game of his rookie campaign, Jones has slowly started to make his way back to his college form, only in a situation he’s never quite been in before.

With the dynamic duo of Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills all but locked into the two outside cornerback spots in Jim Schwartz‘s defense, Jones has been forced to compete for the team’s slot corner position, a transition that’s a lot easier said than done.

Unlike playing on the outside in a man press scheme, where the sideline essentially acts as a second defender, playing inside requires a corner to stay vigilant, maintaining their leverage while having to cover players going in either direction.

This, when coupled with the relatively recent trend of teams deploying their top offensive weapon out of the slot, has made finding a dynamic nickel cornerback all but essential to field a top-tier defense in the modern-day NFL.

Ergo why this is even a conversation.

On paper, no one is going to argue that Jones isn’t one of the top three quarterbacks on the Eagles’ roster, as he may be one of the most physically gifted players at the position in the league, but Maddox’s body is practically tailor-made for the rigors of the inside job, as his quick-twitch athleticism could be a major advantage when facing off against speedy slot receivers.

And when you look at the stats, things become even harder to judge.

In the Eagles Week 3 preseason bout against the Cleveland Browns, Jones finished out the game with the highest Pro Football Focus rating of any player on the team’s defense, with a 90.3 rating while manning the slot against for virtually the entire first half, and a good bit of the third quarter. Though he wasn’t particularly flashy, Jones finished out the game with a single tackle and made a few plays.

Maddox, on the other hand, made a serious statement after entering the game in relief of Jones by hauling in a running, 36-yard interception without breaking stride.

While it’s clear that either player could conceivably be a solid starter in the slot, one question has to be asked: Which is more important for the reigning Super Bowl champions, immediate, or long-term success?

Though Maddox may be a better immediate fit in the slot, coaches typically want to have their best players on the field at any given time, and playing Jones only in dime packages would be a waste of his astronomical talent.

Philly didn’t select him in the second round to have him sit on the bench. No, if recent reports are of any indication, Jones is going to play a lot, but where?

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Would it be better to get Jones on the field as the team’s nickel cornerback, accepting that there will be the occasional hang up to get him used to the position?

And want about the teams to outside cornerbacks? With Darby said to be a free agent at the end of the year, and Mills following suit in 2020, could the team simply opted to allow one of the two players to walk in free agency and slide in either Jones or Rasul Douglas as an in-house replacement on the outside? If so, it might be smart to deploy either Mills or Darby in the slot on obvious passing downs now and give Jones some reps as a nickel outside corner.

Though only time will tell who wins the Eagles nickel cornerback spot going into the season, as presumably none of the team starters will play in the fourth preseason, it’s nice to take a moment to really appreciate the abundance of riches Philly has in their defensive backs room.

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Regardless of who ‘wins’ the Philadelphia Eagles slot corner position, it’s clear that the team will enter the 2018 NFL season with some serious optionally, which should allow Jim Schwartz to tailor his defensive schemes to gain positive matchups against opposing team’s strengths on a week to week basis.