One of the common philosophies amongst teams in the NFL is to look for lengthy cornerbacks who can match up well against some of the league’s best wide receivers who have great size. Size does matter, and it’s a huge asset to have a CB who can not only stay with a receiver in coverage but also break up a 50/50 ball in the air.
The Philadelphia Eagles are no different when it comes to this philosophy. Ever since Andy Reid brought in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha to be part of the secondary all those years ago, height has been one constant when it comes to what the Eagles have looked for in their starting cornerbacks.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie 6’2”
Nnamdi Asomugha 6’3”
Cary Williams 6’1”
Bradley Fletcher 6’0”
Byron Maxwell 6’1”
Nolan Carroll 6’1”
Jalen Mills 6’0”
Sidney Jones 6’0”
Ronald Darby 5’11”
Rasul Douglas 6’2”
None of those cornerbacks, with the exception of Ronald Darby, is less than 6’ tall. But even though some of them have had a short period of success at some point, none of them turned out to be the lockdown corners that the organization had hoped that some of them would be. Some of us are still having nightmares over Nnamdi Asomugha and Byron Maxwell. And Sidney Jones is a “To Be Determined” still.
If you look back even further though you’ll remember a time when the team had one of the best CB units in the league for several years. Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor came first, followed by Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown. And even though Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor were 6’1” and 6’3”, respectively, Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown were both only 5’10”. Even Asante Samuel, who was acquired after Sheppard’s time with the team was finished, was 5’10”.
The issue with any team’s search for these lengthy corners is that they sometimes sacrifice the more important trait: a cornerback’s ability to actually cover. Smaller cornerbacks often times get overlooked despite their coverage skills and are automatically presumed to just be slot corners. And while it’s certainly understandable and not a bad thing to have that certain prototype of cornerback at each of the corner spots, it shouldn’t limit those players who check off all of the other boxes other than height.
Why do I bring all this up? Because we may be witnessing the emergence of something that the Eagles haven’t had in a long time: a lockdown cornerback. His name is Avonte Maddox. And he’s 5’9”.
Maddox was the 25th pick in 4th round of the 2018 NFL Draft. He was a 4-year starter for the Pittsburgh Panthers who played primarily at the left outside corner spot. Scouting reports on Maddox described him as an undersized corner with great overall athleticism, a top notch work ethic, and exceptional leadership qualities. He tested very well at the NFL Combine, including running a 4.39 40-yard dash. The concerns for him, other than his height, were with his inconsistent technique and mental processing. So despite having the athleticism and intangibles needed, he fell to the 3rd day of the draft because of his size and need to be coached up before being ready for the pro game.
From the moment he was drafted it was presumed that Maddox would be groomed to be the defense’s slot corner of the future, but a season-ending injury to Rodney McLeod forced Maddox to be thrust into the lineup as the team’s safety. He struggled a bit at first and understandably so considering it being a whole new position for him to learn. But he steadily started to settle in and play better after a couple games. Then a knee injury in Week 11 against the Saints caused him to miss some playing time.
Maddox returned to the lineup this past Sunday against the Rams, but instead of playing safety he was put in at the left outside corner spot with Jalen Mills, Ronald Darby, and Sidney Jones all being out due to injury. It was expected that the Rams would be able to exploit the Eagles’ banged up secondary all game long, just as other teams had been doing weeks prior.
However, Maddox had other ideas. He put on an absolute clinic all game long and played arguably the best single game any Eagles cornerback has played all season. Heck, maybe even last season as well.
Shot 5 – Great seeing rookie DB Avonte Maddox return to the lineup. Now has starts at FS, Nickel Corner and LCB. Quick and competitive with everything he does. Battled the entire game and came through in the clutch with two big plays on the final drive #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/UVBb4YSmTd
— Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 17, 2018
Jim Schwartz: “I don’t know if we win that game without Avonte (Maddox).”
— Tim McManus (@Tim_McManus) December 18, 2018
Maddox’s capabilities aren’t surprising to me. You could see the potential he had by watching what he did in college. What is surprising though is how fast he’s been able to develop. During training camp he was struggling repeatedly with his technique and had a lot to learn when it came to things like jamming the receiver at the release point and using proper spacing to stay in phase with the receiver at the stem of the route. It’s one thing to have the physical ability to play, but it’s a whole other thing to be able to apply that ability properly. And then you factor in that he also had to learn the nuances of the safety position in the middle of the season on the fly. Maddox’s rapid development has been a testament to how hard of a worker he is and his ability to pick up the mental aspect of the game quickly.
In the end it is one game though, and we still have to see if Maddox can keep this level of play up going forward. Being matched up against Josh Reynolds is one thing, but it’s another thing when you’re facing Odell Beckham Jr and Amari Cooper twice a year. He’s going to have to show that he can play like this on a consistent basis against the top receiver talent in the league if he wants to be the Eagles’ outside cornerback permanently.
Yes, Maddox is undersized and opposing offenses will always look to exploit that by matching up their taller receivers on him. That is certainly a concern. But with all the other things Maddox brings to the table, that’s almost a risk the Eagles’ coaching staff should be willing to take. I’d rather have someone who is able to be physical in press coverage, stay in phase with a receiver throughout the route, and make up ground when he’s beat than someone who has the length to defend jump balls but consistently lets a receiver get open. Maddox not only has the potential to be a great cover corner, he’s also shown to be fearless in run support and can tackle even the likes of Todd Gurley 1-on-1 (he had 3 solo tackles on Gurley, in case you wanted to keep count).
Even though it’s not the norm, it’s not as though we’ve never seen smaller corners succeed on the outside. I already mentioned 2 Eagles greats in Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown. There are also guys like Alterraun Verner, Brent Grimes, and Jason Verrett to name a few who have had success and have been very good on the outside.
Furthermore, look at the current group of cornerbacks on the Eagles roster right now who have a chance of being with the team beyond this season. Is there anyone else that has the man-to-man coverage ability that Maddox already does? Sidney Jones flashed some potential earlier in the season but hasn’t been healthy yet again, so we don’t know exactly what we have in him yet. We’re all aware of Jalen Mills’ limitations in coverage and how much of a liability he can be. Ronald Darby has the speed and coverage skills but is so inconsistent not only week-to-week but even play-to-play. And Rasul Douglas has proven to be a ball hawk and a great tackler but he still lacks speed and might be better suited as a safety.
In a season where the Eagles have been decimated by injury, especially in the secondary, a silver lining is that some of the young players on the roster have gotten the opportunity to come in and get some playing time. For example, undrafted free agent rookie Josh Adams has stepped up in the absence of Jay Ajayi on the offensive side of the ball. And on the defensive side, even though not many of us expected it, we may be witnessing the emergence of something that the Eagles haven’t had in a long time: a lockdown cornerback. His name is Avonte Maddox. And he’s 5’9”.