In Roob’s Eagles Observations: Can Avonte Maddox really play safety?

In Roob’s Eagles Observations: Can Avonte Maddox really play safety? originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Why I have concerns about Avonte Maddox playing safety, an unprecedented achievement for DeVonta Smith and A.J. Brown to go after in 2024, and the only player to score a touchdown in his only game as an Eagle.

We may be entering the only dead period on the NFL schedule — mid-June until late-July — but when it comes to Roob’s 10 Random Eagles Offseason Observations, there are no dead periods.

Dig in!

1. There’s been a lot of talk about Avonte Maddox getting some work at safety during OTAs, and while it does make sense in a way — the Eagles have a surplus of corners and not enough safeties and Cooper DeJean seems like he’s headed for the starting slot — I have my doubts. I like Maddox. I really admire the way he plays. He’s a tough, hard-nosed, physical defensive back, and there’s no question he has the skills to play safety. At least for a little while. I just don’t see how a guy who’s already injury-prone playing corner and would be one of the smallest safeties in NFL history is going to hold up if he has to play significant snaps at safety. Maddox is listed at 5-9, 184, and according to Stathead there have only been three other safeties in the last 50 years who are 5-9 and 184 or less (Terry Cousin of the Giants in 2004, Shaun Jolly of the Rams in 2022, Ar’Darius Washington in 2022 and 2023), and none played more than a handful of games there. Remember, Maddox has already missed 28 games the last four years and 35 in six NFL seasons. I like Maddox and his game, but I just think it would be a mistake to count on him backing up safety when he hasn’t been able to stay on the field playing corner. At some point, Sydney Brown will be back, and I think he’s got a chance to be a player, and Mekhi Garner could be in the backup safety mix as well. If the Eagles keep Maddox as a backup slot and emergency safety and core special teamer, that could work. I just fear that the more safety he’s asked to play, the greater the risk of losing him again.

2. Interesting that as Jalen Hurts’ rushing numbers have dropped — 6.7 yards per carry in 2021 to 5.4 in 2022 and 4.2 last year (with kneel downs removed), his rushing first downs have increased — 56 in 2021 to 67 in 2022 to 68 last year (and only 17 of those were tush pushes). So he didn’t have the long runs to beef up his average last year, but he was surprisingly productive when he did take off. Despite ranking 35th in the NFL last year with 157 rushing attempts, Hurts had the 2nd-most rushing first downs, behind only Christian McCaffrey’s 83. His 68 rushing first downs are 2nd-most ever by a quarterback — three fewer than Lamar Jackson’s 71 in 2019. Nobody else in NFL history has had as many as 68 first downs on fewer than 160 rushing attempts. If you remove his kneel downs, he converted 46 percent of his runs into first downs, and that’s the 2nd-highest rate on record behind Josh Allen’s 51 percent last year. The eye test said Hurts wasn’t as effective when he ran last year as 2021 and 2022, and there were plenty of RPOs and keepers that had disastrous results, which was more a product of lousy play calling and offensive concepts than anything Hurts was doing. In the right offense and with a creative, innovative play caller with the ability to keep defenses off balance, there’s no doubt Hurts’ running ability can remain a major weapon.

3. DeVonta Smith and A.J. Brown have a real chance of adding their names to the list of the greatest wide receiver tandems in NFL history by the time they’re done. Don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves, but if they each hit 1,000 yards in 2024 they’ll be only the sixth duo in NFL history to record three straight 1,000-yard seasons together and the first to do it before either one turns 28. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin have done it each of the last three years and have a chance in 2024 to become the first duo to record four straight 1,000-yard seasons. Cris Carter and Jake Reed each had 1,000 yards with the Vikings from 1995 through 1997, as well as Carter and Randy Moss 1998 through 2020, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce from 2000 through 2002 with the Rams, and Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas from 2014 through 2016 with the Broncos. Smith and Brown are the only Eagles duo with 1,000 receiving yards in the same season.

4. I think we should talk about Bobby Thomason’s 1956 season quarterbacking the Eagles. Good ol’ Bobby threw four touchdowns and 21 interceptions and he remains the only NFL quarterback in the last 70 years to throw just four TD passes in a season and at least 20 interceptions. His passer rating of 40.7 is 8th-worst in NFL history (minimum 10 starts). Two of Thomason’s TD passes (and two INTs) came in a Week 3 win over the Steelers at Forbes Field. The rest of the season he threw two TDs and 15 INTs. He had a six-INT game against the Cards and five starts in which he completed five or fewer passes. The offense averaged 11.3 points per game and scored 10 or fewer points six times. The Eagles went 3-8-1 (after a 2-1 start) under head coach Hugh Devore and finished last in their division for the first time since 1942. Here’s the kicker: Thomason made the Pro Bowl that year. I guess all 11 other NFL quarterbacks were hurt.

5. Only six players in NFL history drafted in the fifth round or later have had 90 career sacks. Two of the six were Eagles draft picks. Clyde Simmons, a 9th-round pick in 1986, had 121 ½, which is 61 more than any other 9th-round pick. And Trent Cole, a 5th-round pick in 2005, had 90 ½, which is 4th-most ever by a 5th-round pick. The others drafted in the fifth round or later with 90 sacks are Hall of Famer Kevin Greene, a 5th-round pick in 1985 (160); Hall of Famer and one-time Eagle Richard Dent, an 8th-round pick in 1983 (137 ½); Robert Mathis, a 5th-round pick in 2003 (123.0); and Dexter Manley, a 5th-round pick in 1981 (97 ½).

6. If the Eagles signed T.O. today, he’d be their 3rd-best receiver.

7A. There’s only one player in Eagles history who played in just one game in an Eagles uniform and scored a touchdown. That’s running back Terrell Watson. The Eagles signed Watson to the practice squad on Dec. 20, 2016. They were his fourth team after brief stints with the Bengals, Browns and Broncos. They signed him to the 53-man roster on Dec. 30, and on New Year’s Day, with the Eagles’ playoff hopes long gone, Watson was active on gameday at the Linc for a game that was meaningless for both teams. He finished the game with 28 rushing yards on nine carries, but with the Eagles up 20-13 and a 1st-and-goal on the Dallas 7 with 1:39 left in the game, Doug Pederson called three straight runs up the middle for Watson, who gained six yards on the first two and then scored from a yard out on the third. The Eagles released Watson the following May and he bounced around for a couple years with the Steelers, Giants and Chargers. But he never scored another touchdown. And to this day he remains the answer to a terrific Eagles trivia question.

7B. Only one NFL player who played in one career game scored two touchdowns. That was Wes Hills, a running back from South Jersey. Hills played high school ball at Wildwood — he rushed for 35 touchdowns as a senior in 2012 — and then played at Delaware and Slippery Rock. He went undrafted in 2018 but spent most of 2019 on the Lions’ practice squad. He was activated for a game late in the year against the Bucs at Ford Field and in a 38-17 loss he scored two 2nd-half touchdowns of one yard each. He returned to the practice squad and never played in another NFL game. Hills has played since in the CFL and USFL. He remains the only player in history to play one game and score multiple TDs.

8. Rushing success rate is a metric that measures the percentage of carries a running back gains a certain predetermined number of yards in specific situations. It’s not perfect, but it’s a pretty good barometer of a back’s efficiency. A successful rush is considered one that gains 40 percent of the yards required for a first down on first down, 60 percent of yards required for a first down on second down and 100 percent of yards required on third or fourth down. Stathead goes back to 1994 on rushing success rate, and during that 30-year period, 200 running backs have had at least 500 total carries. Saquon Barkley’s rushing success rate of 42.5 ranks 182nd out of those 200 backs. The highest Eagle during that span is Barkley’s college teammate, Miles Sanders, who had a 53.9 success rate in his four seasons with the Eagles. His 51.8, including last year with the Panthers, ranks 10th out of those 200 backs with at least 500 carries.

9. Pass rush is one area where the Eagles could be very good in 2024 or could struggle again, and I don’t think anybody has any idea which way that will go. Josh Sweat was a Pro Bowler in 2021 and had a career-high 11 sacks in 2023. Bryce Huff is coming off a breakthrough 10-sack 2023 season with the Jets. Nolan Smith was a 1st-round pick for a reason last year. Brandon Graham can still give the Eagles a couple dozen quality snaps a game. Then there’s the flip side. Sweat didn’t have a sack the last two months of the season. Huff only had 7 ½ sacks — albeit in limited playing time — his first three seasons. B.G. is 36. Smith was a non-factor as a rookie. Will be fascinating  to see how this group filled with question marks produces in Vic Fangio’s scheme.

10. Devon Allen’s dream of coming back from January knee surgery to compete for a berth on the U.S. Olympic team is over. Allen, who spent the last two seasons with the Eagles, underwent surgery on Jan. 5 in Scottsdale to repair a torn ACL in his left knee that he suffered at practice two weeks earlier at the NovaCare Complex. Allen is the 3rd-fastest hurdler in world history with a 12.84 at the New York Grand Prix at Icahn Stadium in Manhattan on June 12, 2022. He placed 5th in the Olympic final in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and 4th in the 2021 Games in Tokyo. The entry deadline for next week’s U.S. Olympic Trials was 11:59 p.m. Tuesday and Allen’s name never did show up on the entry list or list of accepted athletes. Allen qualified because the qualifying window opened July 1, 2023, and Allen ran one race after that — 13.51 in the qualifying round of the U.S. Championships in Eugene, Ore., on July 8 on his home track from college — the last time he raced. The cut-off for the field of 36 turned out to be 13.74, so Allen would have qualified had he entered. Allen ranked 6th in the world in 2023 with a 13.04 in New York in June. The Trials begin at Hayward Field in Eugene on Friday, with the first round of 110-meter hurdles scheduled for Saturday. That’s less than six months after he tore his ACL. Allen, who is currently an NFL free agent, could be healthy in time to race in Europe, where the Diamond League meets continue through September. Allen turns 30 in December and would be 34 when the 2028 Olympics roll around in Los Angeles. But there will be a World Championships in 2025 in Tokyo, and that’s a realistic goal.

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