When the Eagles lost starting safety Rodney McLeod for the season, rookie fourth-round cornerback Avonte Maddox was the unanimous choice among the coaching staff to replace him.
Even though he’s not a safety. And had never been a safety. And stands 5-foot-9. And is a rookie fourth-round draft pick who hadn't played a snap on defense in a regular-season game.
Still a no-brainer.
On Monday, in a rare chat with writers covering the team, Eagles secondary coach Cory Undlin shed some insight into how and why that seemingly out-of-the-blue decision was made.
We took Rodney out of the picture and talked about it as a staff and Avonte gave us the best replacement for Rodney. Kind of the same body type, speed, change of direction. Avonte’s tough, now. I think that position of free safety kind of gets overlooked sometimes, like, ‘Oh, the guy’s just standing back there in the back part of the field.’ But the ball comes ripping through there. (You have to be able to) get the guy on the ground, and we all felt more than comfortable with Avonte in that role, being able to get people on the ground. He’s got great range, he’s fast, really, really smart back there, he’s got great awareness. Some of the things he’s done the last two weeks it’s been like, ‘Wow.’ He’s stepped in there without hesitation.
It was a surprising decision, but Maddox played well enough in his NFL safety debut against the Titans that he started against both the Vikings and Giants with impressive results.
The Eagles only allowed two touchdowns in those two games, only one of them through the air. Maddox has been sound in coverage and tackling so far.
For a guy playing in the NFL for the first time, it's been quite an auspicious debut.
Maddox wound up moving into the slot when Sidney Jones got hurt early in the Giants game, and Rasul Douglas took over at safety, but the Eagles really believe they’ve discovered a safety in this 5-9 22-year-old.
“I spent some time with him at his pro day and talked to him and all the research we did, there was no question marks on (whether) the guy can learn,” Undlin said.
“Sharp kid. He gets ball. He loves ball. If you get it and love it, you’ve got a chance. You can be the smartest guy but if you don’t love it, it’s not going to matter.
“Being around Avonte in spring (workouts) and training camp and watching him grow I wouldn’t have expected any less.”
Maddox was just starting to get settled at safety Thursday night when Jones got hurt on a punt return.
It was time for Maddox to move into a second new position in three weeks.
“Avonte knew he was next, the players knew he was next,” Undlin said. “It happened on a punt return and we’re going on defense and it’s like, ‘Hey, OK, you’re the nickel when we go to nickel.’
“‘Hey Rasul, go tell Avonte to play nickel.’ And (Avonte just said), ‘OK, no problem.’
“You’re looking for a good tackler, a guy that watches a lot of tape, that’s smart and understands what’s happening before it happens. And Avonte is who that was.”
Look for Maddox to stay in the slot as long as Jones is out. When he comes back, Maddox goes back to safety.
If Graham and Jones both remain out, that second safety spot could be Douglas again or it could be either Tre Sullivan or Deiondre’ Hall.
The common denominator is Maddox. He’s not leaving the field anytime soon.
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