When the Eagles signed cornerback Steve Nelson just before training camp, it was deemed a good move because the Eagles were getting a clear upgrade at their CB2 position.
That’s not it, though.
Because another added benefit, as these early practices have confirmed, is that this move also forced Avonte Maddox back into the nickel corner position, as Darius Slay put it best: “Where he belongs.”
Over the course of his first three seasons in the NFL, the Eagles have relied on Maddox’s versatility, playing him at the nickel, outside and even some at free safety. That versatility has helped the Eagles in a pinch, but Maddox struggled outside last year and signing Nelson helped the Eagles improve at two positions.
Because while Nelson is an obvious upgrade at CB2, Maddox is better suited for playing inside.
Even his most decorated teammate in the secondary agrees.
“Great, man,” Slay said. “He’s a competitor, he can tackle and that’s where he belongs. He’s a great guy that can play the inside. Fast, smart and a guy that’s willing to tackle and that’s a good thing.”
Last season, Maddox ranked dead last (126 out of 126) in ProFootballFocus’s rankings of cornerbacks. So this move felt necessary in 2021.
At 5-foot-9, Maddox certainly has the body type to be an inside corner. While he said he didn’t think his (lack of) height was the reason for his struggles outside last year — he claims it was his eyes — there’s a reason there aren’t many 5-foot-9 outside corners.
And there’s a reason why there are a lot of 5-foot-9 slot corners.
“It feels good,” Maddox said about his move back inside. “Been moving around a lot for the past year. Going back in there, it’s a different game, different steps, different movement. But I’m definitely getting more comfortable in it.”
The good news is that perhaps the Eagles were preparing for another addition this whole time. Because in the spring, Maddox was splitting his time as an outside corner and an inside guy. Or maybe the Eagles were thinking he could play outside in their base package and slide inside in nickel situations.
Whatever the case, Maddox did already get some experience as the nickel corner in Jonathan Gannon’s defense months ago. So it’s not like he’s starting from Square 1 during training camp.
Although, Maddox did admit that the slot corner position in Gannon’s defense is different than it was under Jim Schwartz. The main difference, he said, is that he needs to be much more communicative in the new defense. He’s now responsible for setting up his teammates, almost like a middle linebacker.
In a way, since the Eagles drafted Maddox in the fourth round back in 2018, he’s been an ultimate utility player. On Friday, when asked, he admitted if the Eagles had made him stick at one position, he’d probably be much better at that one position right now.
“But you want to help the team so it just don’t go like that,” he said. “You need people to move around and be versatile. I pride myself on not being that one-trick pony. I don’t want.”
When asked about what position he sees himself playing long-term, Maddox said he wasn’t sure, that he’d do whatever his team needs of him. He feels like the varied experience of his first three seasons will help him whenever he settles down at one spot.
And that could happen in Philly or elsewhere. Because Maddox is entering a contract year in 2021. After getting paid NFL peanuts in his first three years as a fourth-round pick, Maddox has a base salary of over $2 million this year after hitting some playing time incentives in his rookie deal.
While contracts for nickel corners are still lagging behind other positions, notably behind outside corners, if Maddox improves in 2021 as a result of his move inside, he could end up getting a nice new contract at the end of this year.
“I’m not really focused on the contract year right now,” he said. “I’m focused on being in the moment on the field, where they have me at. I’m going to compete and play my hardest wherever they have me at just so I won’t disappoint the guys that’s on the field with me and the guys that’s putting their trust in me. Contract year is not really ever on my mind. I’m just trying to win a Super Bowl.”
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