Philadelphia Eagles: Starting Avonte Maddox on the outside isn’t too crazy

(Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
(Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images) /

After bouncing around the Philadelphia Eagles’ secondary since 2018, moving Avonte Maddox to outside cornerback full-time isn’t all that outlandish.

Avonte Maddox may be the most intriguingly versatile player on the Philadelphia Eagles’ roster.

A fourth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft out of Pittsburgh, Maddox has appeared in 28 games with 18 starts as a pro. In those games, Maddox has logged snaps in the slot, what many feel is his natural position due to his size, free safety in relief of Rodney McLeod, and even on the parameter as injuries piled up down the stretch in 2019.

Earlier this month, and really since the season ended back in January, fans in the 215 openly debated what position Maddox should play moving forward, and how his versatility could affect the team’s plans in both free agency and the draft.

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Out of context, those results have been a bit confusing.

First and foremost, the Eagles opted to re-sign McLeod on a two-year, $12 million deal to retain his role as the defense’s last line of defense. Okay, cool. Then, interestingly enough, the front office opted against picking up Malcolm Jenkins‘ option, re-signed Jalen Mills to play safety, traded two picks to acquire outside cornerback de jour Darius Slay, and signed both safety Will Parks and nickel corner Nickell Robey-Coleman to one-year deals.

Howie Roseman, my guy, what do you have up your sleeve?

Well, as it turns out, we have a bit of an idea thanks entirely to NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Reuben Frank.

At press availability on Thursday, Roseman had this to say about Maddox’s ability to succeed in a full-time role, moments after comparing the 5-foot-9 cornerback to Pro Bowl stalwarts Darrell Green and Aaron Glenn.

"This is a guy who has started on the outside for us in playoff games, he has the ability to have sticky coverage with receivers inside or out,” Roseman said. “Obviously, he’s also played in the back end. He’s got a great mentality, and he’s got a great physical skill set. He’s an explosive, twitched-up guy as well, so yeah, we feel like he’s a guy who can play all over the secondary and certainly feel comfortable with him outside as well."

And here’s the thing: Roseman’s right.

Now, in theory, could Maddox struggle to blanket one side of the field if tasked with covering any player who lines up across from him? Totally, there are receivers like D.K. Metcalf and Mike Evans who are bad matchups for a corner who measures in at three inches taller than Darren Sproles, but the presence of a moveable piece like Slay should help to mitigate those issues.

Furthermore, size isn’t as vital when playing zone, with some variation of Cover 3 being the primary coverage look the Eagles deployed in 2019. As you can see by this play, despite being a solid five inches shorter than Penn State-turned-Chicago Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson, Maddox was able to read his route and snag a crucial interception off of then-sophomore signal-caller Mitchell Trubisky – at least until it was called back after a review.

Now granted, Maddox’s overly eager route reading also resulted in surrendering an ugly touchdown to Robinson later in the game, as pointed out by our good friend Emmanuel Acho in his own tweet here, but that’s forgivable for a rookie cornerback playing out of position in his first career playoff game.

Make no mistake about it, Maddox is a Jim Schwartz cornerback. With a keen eye for competing for the ball in the air, and a short memory, Maddox can check the same boxes as the player he’s replacing, Ronald Darby, and the player he replaced in 2017, Leodis McKelvin. All three are sub-six-foot-tall, run sub-4.40s, and have braided hair. Had Maddox opted to change his number to 21, the number now belonging to Mills, it would be hard to tell the trio apart.

Maddox also has that trademark aggression required of a cornerback in Schwartz’s system. Despite his size, Maddox made plays all over the field whenever around the ball over his four-year career at Pitt, recording seven sacks, eight interceptions, 13.5 tackles for low, 34 passes defensed, and even two defensive touchdowns while lining up at outside cornerback in Pat Narduzzi‘s adaptive zone scheme.

As a pro, Maddox has remained similarly instinctual around the ball, having recorded two picks, two forced fumbles, 14 pass breakups, 1.5 sacks (on nine blitzes), and 87 combined tackles while playing virtually every role in the defensive backfield. He’s been more than reliable in coverage, allowing only 738 yards on 117 targets and two touchdowns over his career. Sure, one would like to see a slightly lower missed tackle rate than a 10.9, but as a whole, Maddox was one of the Eagles’ better defensive backs in 2018 and was far from the team’s biggest problem in a slightly less impressive sophomore campaign.

In Schwartz’s scheme, cornerbacks don’t have to win every single down, they just have to challenge the ball once it’s thrown.

Presuming Maddox does, in fact, get first crack at starting opposite Slay as one of Schwartz’s base outside cornerbacks, the 24-year-old cornerback will be able to focus all of his attention to mastering that one position, without having to cross-train ad nauseam in the slot or at free safety. This should allow the Birthday Boy (as of March 31st) to improve up his press technique, shore up his jamming, and hopefully, convert a few more of those pass breakups into full-on interceptions.

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As per Howie Roseman’s own admission, if Avonte Maddox was a few inches taller with freaky long arms, he very well may have been in the conversation for the first cornerback off the board in the 2018 NFL Draft long with Ohio State‘s Denzel Ward. He wasn’t; he fell to the Philadelphia Eagles 121 picks later. But after years of watching ‘promising cornerbacks’ struggle to compete on the outside due to a lack of outside speed, give me a 5-foot-9 guy with a ton of character with fantastic burst and legit 4.39 speed any day of the week.