In Roob's Observations: Can Eagles rely on Avonte Maddox in the slot?

In Roob's Observations: Can Eagles rely on Avonte Maddox in the slot? originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Can the Eagles depend on Avonte Maddox in 2024? What are the Eagles’ options at running back? And why I was wrong about Michael Clay.

It’s our first offseason edition of Roob’s 10 Random Eagles Observations. Training camp is only five months away!

1. Avonte Maddox gives you everything you want in a nickel corner. He’s smart. He’s tough. He’s physical. He’s got great instincts. He’s a very good tackler. He moves well in space. He always plays hard. If you were going to design a nickel corner, you’d design Maddox, maybe plus a little more size. And that’s the problem. At 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, Maddox can’t seem to stay healthy playing the physical brand of football we love about him. Maddox has missed 34 games in six NFL seasons, including six in 2020, eight in 2022 and 13 last year. And he’s played at less than 100 percent in several others along the way. We saw last year how hamstrung the Eagles’ secondary was with a ridiculous rotating cast of slot corners that included undrafted rookies, practice squad call-ups, converted outside corners and safeties, scrap-heat pickups and aging veterans. And while the easiest answer is to just stick Maddox out there, can the Eagles depend on him staying healthy for a full season or even most of a season? I don’t know how. Maddox has a $9.68 million cap hit in 2024 but would count $7.7 million if the Eagles release him, so he'll almost certainly be here. But the Eagles can’t go into 2024 without finding someone who can man the slot in the event Maddox gets hurt again. It has to be a priority. Slot corner these days is essentially a starting position. Eli Ricks played a lot of inside snaps last year and showed some promise, and he could develop into that sort of player, but he’s not there yet. Zech McPhearson will be back after Achilles surgery, but we don’t know how good he is. Isaiah Rodgers should be available, but he’s mainly an outside corner. I’m not sure what the answer is, but Howie Roseman has to address the position because as much as I admire the way Maddox plays, the Eagles can't go into 2024 counting on him to stay healthy.

2. The Eagles’ running back situation is fascinating to me. Does Roseman figure the Eagles can let D’Andre Swift go because running backs are interchangeable and it seems easy to find cheap running backs? Top-10 RBs are making $7 or $8 million per year and I just can’t imagine the Eagles paying Swift that kind of money. But maybe the Miles Sanders deal will put even more of a damper on running back contracts league-wide, Swift won’t get a Sanders type of deal ($6.4 million per year) and he’ll come back for $3 ½ or $4 million on a one-year deal. It's hard to picture the Eagles drafting a running back anywhere before maybe the fourth round because they have so many other much more pressing needs. But if not Swift then who? Kenny Gainwell is under contract at a little under $1 million in 2024 on the final year of his rookie deal, and Nick Sirianni clearly likes him. But this is Kellen Moore’s offense now so who knows where he stands there? Can Gainwell carry a much bigger workload and still be productive? He’s had six or fewer carries in 43 of 56 career games. But in the seven games he’s gotten double-digit carries he’s averaged 4.6 yards. His 4.5 career average ranks 17th over his three NFL seasons among 64 RBs with at least 200 carries. And he’s a capable receiver and a good blocker. I really like Swift and I think he’s the Eagles’ best 2024 option. But I’m not sure even Roseman can get him back here.

3. Sometimes we’re just wrong. And when we’re wrong it’s important to own up to it. I wrote after last season that the Eagles needed to replace special teams coach Michael Clay after what was really a disastrous performance by special teams all year, culminating in Kadarius Toney’s catastrophic 65-yard punt return down to the Eagles’ 5-yard-line in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. “He’s gotta GO!” I couldn’t have been more wrong. Nick Sirianni stuck with Clay, and Clay responded by really putting together an outstanding season in just about every special teams area from returns to coverage to kicking to punting. And now Clay has a contract extension that’s well deserved. Sirianni deserves credit for sticking with Clay, and Clay deserves credit for putting in the work to get the thing turned around. It's important in this offseason of tumultuous coaching change that there’s some stability on the staff. Especially with Clay, the only assistant coach who works with the entire roster.

4. Starting with the 2008 NFC Championship Game, the Eagles have six interceptions in their last 15 postseason games (and two in their last nine). They had two INTs off Drew Brees in the 2013 wild-card loss to the Saints (Bradley Fletcher, DeMeco Ryans), two off Case Keenum in the 2017 NFC Championship Game (Corey Graham, Patrick Robinson), another off Brees in the 2018 conference semifinals (Cre’von LeBlanc) and one against the Giants in the 2022 conference semifinals off Daniel Jones (James Bradberry). So over the last 15 years, the Eagles have as many postseason interceptions from current NFL coaches as current NFL players. LeBlanc’s pick in New Orleans in 2018 is the Eagles’ only INT in their last six road playoff games.

5. It’s interesting to me that as far as we know, three critical offensive position coaches – running backs coach Jemel Singleton, tight ends coach Jason Michael and receivers coach Aaron Moorehead – are still in place. We haven’t heard anything about anybody else interviewing for those jobs, and while everything is fluid right now, maybe Kellen Moore has decided he’s keeping those guys. And I don’t mind that. Singleton has had a different Pro Bowl running back in each of the last two years, Moorehead has had two 1,000-yard receivers in each of the last two years and Michael has done as much as he can with what he has. On defense, it seemed clear that the staff needed a complete overhaul. On offense, it seemed clear that play calling and offensive structure were the real issues, and the Eagles addressed that with a new coordinator. We’ll see what happens over the next couple weeks, but Singleton, Moorehead and Michael were all part of the Eagles’ Super Bowl staff in 2022, and I never sensed that they were part of the problem last year.

6. What’s most surprising: That the Eagles had the No. 3 offense in 1990 under offensive coordinator Rich Kotite, the No. 10 defense in 2011 under defensive coordinator Juan Castillo or the No. 7 offense in the NFL last year under Brian Johnson?

7. It’s been suggested that the Eagles should keep James Bradberry around to avoid a huge cap hit and hope that a new defensive coordinator and a couple new secondary coaches will help him recapture his form of 2022. I’m not buying it. I don’t think a new coaching staff will change the fact that Bradberry can’t run anymore. Was a former Pro Bowler and Second-Team All-Pro whiffing on tackles because of poor coaching? I don’t see it. Sometimes you’ve got to suck it up and take the cap hit and this is one of those times. If the Eagles are worried Bradberry will sign somewhere else and go back to being an elite corner, they shouldn’t. It won’t happen.

8A. NFL kickers were more accurate from 55 yards and out in 2023 than they were from 45 yards and out in 2003. In 2003, all kickers combined were 139-for-241 from 45 yards and out (57.7 percent). This past season, they were 44-for-76 from 55 yards and out (57.8 percent)

8B. Jake Elliott is 7-for-11 in his career from 55 yards and out (63.6 percent). Every other Eagles kicker combined is 3-for-31 (9.8 percent).

9. The last seven times the Eagles have been ranked in the top eight defensively in points allowed they’ve reached the NFC Championship Game: No. 2 in 2001, No. 2 in 2002, No. 7 in 2003, No. 2 in 2004, No. 4 in 2008, No. 4 in 2017 and No. 2 in 2022. Last time they were top-8 and didn’t make an NFC Championship Game was 2000, when they were fourth and lost in the conference semifinals. They’ve never reached a conference title game or NFL Championship Game without a top-10 defense. The last time they had a top-8 defense and didn’t reach the playoffs was 1991

10. Because of the final 32-9 score, it’s easy to forget that the Eagles-Bucs playoff game was still a one-possession game late in the third quarter. As bad as the Eagles played, they only trailed 16-9 with a third-and-6 on their own 14 with 2 ½ minutes left in the third quarter. That’s when Jalen Hurts took that unthinkable intentional grounding safety, which made it an 18-9 game. Deven Thompkins returned the free kick out to the Bucs’ 38-yard-line and two plays later Baker Mayfield threw a short pass to Trey Palmer, the Eagles decided not to tackle him, and just like that it was 25-9 and the rout was on. I’m not saying the Eagles would have won if Hurts didn’t take that safety, but before that sequence, they had held the Bucs to two field goals on their last six possessions. But once they were faced with a little adversity, they folded. In the span of four plays over 58 seconds, a one-possession game turned into a laugher. That’s really the Eagles’ 2023 season in a nutshell. When things started to go wrong, they fell to pieces.