Avonte Maddox: A Skeleton Key For Eagles Defense

The Philadelphia Eagles only had 5 picks in the 2018 NFL Draft, when it was all said and done. They dealt back and then up to grab TE Dallas Goedert in the second round; moved another pick around to jump up in the seventh and get rugby sensation OT Jordan Mailata. Originally, they didn't have a second or a third round pick, as final vestiges of the Carson Wentz trade and the Ronald Darby acquisition -- so we knew some wheeling and dealing was gonna go down.

And ultimately, it was the tradeback from 32 overall -- the Lamar Jackson pick -- that gave Philadelphia the Ravens' fourth-round selection that brought Avonte Maddox, an undersized corner/return man out of Pitt, to Philadelphia.

Maddox was actually the second pick for the Eagles in that entire draft, as Goedert went in the middle of Round 2, and the Eagles had no selections otherwise. With depth needs at more than a few spots, Maddox represented another young investment in an unproven cornerback room that had just lost nickel Patrick Robinson to free agency.

At least, that's what we all thought at the time.

Maddox played on the outside at Pitt, despite tipping the Combine scales at 5-foot-9, 184 pounds, and a historically low arm length at 29 1/2". He benefitted from outstanding reactionary quickness in man coverage, and was taught well in terms of pattern recognition and anticipation under Pat Narduzzi's tutelage with the Panthers.

That said, his transition to slot corner at the NFL level followed a windy path, as he would need to learn more measured and patient technique, as well as adjust to the isolation of playing without the sideline to assist him. I viewed him a player far more likely to contribute in Year 2 than in Year 1.

15 weeks later, and the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles just may have saved their season by beating up on an NFC powerhouse. They held the Rams to 23 points -- doesn't sound like a great feat, until you realize it's tied for the second-lowest scoring output in Los Angeles' season, and accomplished with seven defensive starters out with injury.

Injury is what brought Avonte onto the field this season: an outside corner who transitioned to slot in camp (but couldn't win the starting job off Sidney Jones), Maddox was thrust in the free safety role following injuries to Rodney McLeod and Corey Graham. A rookie corner -- fourth-rounder! -- who had already changed positions in camp was now a starting centerfielder in a Cover 3 scheme!

Philadelphia experimented with different looks and alignments; got Corey Graham back from injury; then lost Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, and Sidney Jones all to injury for the Rams game. Back from a three-game absence of his own (knee/ankle) and only listed as questionable for the primetime fight in LA, Maddox started at outside cornerback for the first time this season, completing the wonkiest full-circle you ever did see in less than a season's time.

And look at what sub 30" arms get you on the outside.

Credit goes to Jim Schwartz, who -- no matter where Maddox lined up -- has found a way to get him into intermediate zones and let him play with instincts and quickness. When he was the free safety, Schwartz brought him down as a robber in Inverted Tampa 2; as the slot corner, he played the curl/flat in traditional Cover 3. Here, in what looks like Cover 3 Cloud, Maddox gets to split the intermediate and short routes to his side, certain he has safety help over the top and won't get beat deep.

As Goff lines up to shoot into the gap between safety and corner, Maddox -- his hips nicely positioned for this click and close -- has the quickness to get down the field and collapse the window, getting a paw on this football and forcing the Rams into an early punt.

Maddox also had an interception in the game -- as big as any pick you'd ever see, as the Eagles defense has mightily struggled with generating turnovers to this point in the season. It came in man coverage against Josh Reynolds -- that was a matchup that McVay and Goff tried to attack all game, to no avail: 5 receptions, 70 yards , and 1 INT on 12 targets, including four incompletions in the red zone.

You can understand why the Reynolds/Maddox battle seemed on paper like a plus matchup for the Rams, as Reynolds has about 15 pounds and 6 inches an advantage over Maddox -- but Avonte is so sticky and coverage and, of particular import for a smaller corner, willing to play physically within the route stem. Maddox crowds Reynolds here once he hits his break, collapsing the window and limiting the receiver's ability to work back to the football.

Then, it's just an incredible concentration play (and, as always, a bit of luck!) en route to the first of three turnovers for Los Angeles.

But perhaps the highest impact play that Maddox made all game long was the tackle on Todd Gurley late in the fourth quarter. With only 20 seconds left on the clock, Gurley caught a swing pass out of the backfield with an easy path to the first down and sideline. The Rams would have had a fresh set of downs inside the Philadelphia 25 with about 16 seconds left on the clock -- a touchdown would have tied the game up.

Gurley has received a bevy of criticism for not getting out of bounds here -- and rightfully so. He had a clear window to do so, and elected otherwise. But, in the spirt of credit and where it's due, watch Maddox take WR Brandin Cooks, who has wrongfully assumed this play is pretty much over, and chuck him hard into the sideline.

Maddox, in a display of discipline and doggedness, is fighting to get outside leverage on Gurley. He wants to get between the ball-carrier and the sideline in a late-game situation, to either force him out of bounds without getting upfield, or potentially keep him in bounds.

And that's exactly what happens. Maddox gets outside leverage on Gurley, so -- after the cutback upfield, which we know is ill-advised -- he's in position to deliver a strike on Gurley that does not carry him out-of-bounds, but rather keeps him in the field of play. The only reason he had the angle on that tackle -- which kept the clock running and forced Los Angeles into a Hail Mary situation -- was because he hustled and played his role. That outside leverage ended up, essentially, a game-cinching hustle play.

What is Avonte Maddox in the healthy Philadelphia Eagle secondary? I'm not too sure, but I do know this: it's not your average rookie, who can start at three different alignments (two of which he didn't even dabble in in college) and provide quality reps from each position. Your average rookie corner doesn't even hold his water against the Rams if he A) has been starting on the outside all season and B) was drafted in the early rounds!

Maddox has been an absolute gem for Philadelphia -- arguably the highest-impact draft pick they've had since Carson Wentz back in the 2016 class. He has more than earned a starting role somewhere next season -- I'd imagine at nickel corner -- but more than that, he has held this threadbare defense together long enough, well enough, and just strongly enough the Eagles playoff hopes are still alive.

Written By:

Benjamin Solak

Director of Special Projects

Director of Special Projects and Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-host of the Locked On NFL Draft Podcast. The 3-Wide Raven.

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