Avonte Maddox is somewhere right now catching his breath and healing his body and looking forward to the 2019 season. His rookie year, he admitted late in 2018, was "pretty much a blur," but Maddox didn't flinch once as defensive coordinator used the fourth-round draft pick as a nickel cornerback, a safety and then an outside cornerback. From a maturity standpoint and a performance meter, Maddox handled everything just fine.
As the Eagles develop their offseason plan aimed at reloading for 2019, Maddox is a central figure. The coaching staff knows it has a baller in Maddox, a mighty mite of a player who has the requisite skill set to help in a lot of ways in the defense. He has the speed to turn and run. He has the footwork in short-area coverage situations. He tackles well, competes like crazy, works hard, loves the game and has a high football IQ.
Sounds great, right? The Eagles are very high on Maddox in every way. And that leads to …
How do the Eagles see Maddox? What is the plan for him moving forward, and how does Maddox and where he plays fit into the defense's plans in the secondary?
"Avonte, I can't say enough about him and what he's been able to do," defensive backs coach Cory Undlin said of Maddox during the 2018 regular season. "He gets it. He is a tough guy who is smart, and he's done everything we've asked him to do, and we've asked him to do a lot. I love this guy. He helps us in a lot of ways."
The jack-of-all-trades talent allowed Maddox to play in 13 games, with nine starts, and see action in 52 percent of the defense's snaps in the regular season. In the two postseason games, Maddox started as an outside cornerback and played 135 snaps, 96 percent of the defensive plays. Maddox had his ups and downs, as did the entire defense, but he competed on every play, he was tenacious and Maddox earned high marks for his performance.
So, what's next?
What to do with Maddox is something the Eagles must decide as they set themselves for free agency and the NFL Draft. At this point in time the coaching staff is reviewing potential free agents – each coach looks at the players at his position across the league and grades each player as they would fit into this scheme – and then the Eagles put everything into motion in mid-March (4 p.m., March 13, to be exact). We've got some time here. But, you know, it's going to fly on by and very soon the Eagles are going to be actively addressing the roster.
Maddox's position is going to be a key decision. There are several factors to consider here, including the relative health of the safety group, the outside cornerback positions and the nickel spot.
Both Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod are under contract for 2019. They've been a terrific tandem since 2016 until McLeod suffered a season-ending knee injury three games into the 2018 campaign. Now the Eagles, up against the projected 2019 salary cap, have to factor in big contracts here. They've got to think about the health and age questions. A lot goes into these decisions.
Along with that, the Eagles know they need to have more depth at safety. McLeod's absence was a significant blow to Jim Schwartz's scheme and plans for flexibility. What do the Eagles do at safety, Maddox notwithstanding? Corey Graham is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent. Chris Maragos didn't play a down last season. Tre Sullivan added some good snaps to the defense as the season went along, so he has to figure into the planning as well.
Maddox may very well fit best at safety with his coverage skills and his range and his excellent tackling. That's for the coaching staff to determine. It's all part of the equation.
This is a very difficult group to project. The Eagles began the season with Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills starting on the outside at cornerback. Both of those players ended the year on Injured Reserve and Rasul Douglas and Maddox finished the season as the starters. Both of those young players made progress.
Darby, rehabbing from a knee injury, is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in March. Mills is recovering from a foot injury that was serious enough to keep him sidelined for half the season. Second-year man Sidney Jones, who opened the season as the starting cornerback inside, battled a significant hamstring injury for the second half of the season. He needs to take a big next step in the offseason.
There are some developmental players and young veterans, like Josh Hawkins and Chandon Sullivan, whom the Eagles have to consider in the equation as well.
The development of Cre'Von LeBlanc was a positive for a secondary in need as LeBlanc, claimed off of waivers after time with Detroit, stepped right in and stabilized the nickel position. So, does that mean the Eagles consider him the nickel cornerback moving forward? The guess here is that nothing is in stone with this roster at this point in the offseason. LeBlanc has a lot to build on from the way he played this season. He battled, didn't he? Played fast. Played hard. Kept after it. Showed a ton of hunger. He could be the answer at nickel.
Then again, so could Jones. And so could Maddox. It's all up in the air right now, particularly as a position designation pertains to Maddox. How the Eagles decide to play it with Maddox, where they think he's going to fit in best to help the defense, is going to tell a lot about the direction the Eagles go in building the secondary in the months to come.
The Eagles know that Maddox deserves to have time on the field. Where he best fits is the part of the riddle they're working on now.