Eagles Defensive Starter Reveals Goals: ‘Write It Down’

Avonte Maddox

Getty Avonte Maddox is one of three guys battling for the starting CB spot at Eagles training camp.

It took Avonte Maddox less than 60 seconds to reveal what his biggest weakness was in 2020. The Philadelphia Eagles cornerback shouted it repeatedly into the Zoom call camera: “Eyes, eyes, eyes, eyes.”

The 25-year-old is the presumptive starter opposite Darius Slay for a second straight season. Maddox, a fourth-round pick in 2018, missed six games due to injury last year but the Eagles seem content on keeping him on the outside. He certainly has the talent to thrive despite being slightly undersized (5-foot-9, 184 pounds) as evidenced by his breakout rookie campaign.

The Pittsburgh product tallied two interceptions in 2018 while mostly manning the slot and earned praise from Pro Football Focus. Two injury-plagued years later — 22 out of 32 possible games — Maddox is trying to fine-tune the details of playing cornerback in the NFL under first-year secondary coach Dennard Wilson. Eyes on the prize.

“That’s one thing I tell myself, I probably write it down in my book every day: eyes, eyes, eyes. I go out in the field, eyes, eyes, eyes,” Maddox told reporters. “Your eyes take you where you have to go, and that’s the most important thing, which is true. When you get your eyes in the right spot, you know you can’t be beaten, and you won’t be missing out on big plays you can make.”

If the mantra sounds familiar, it should. Maddox talked about working on those same eyes last September when discussing areas he needed to improve on. That message was being delivered by former secondary coach Marquand Manuel in 2020, then reinforced every day at practice by Pro Bowl teammate Darius Slay.

They kept telling him “to look the receiver in the eye as your driving and take two steps to him.” Maybe it didn’t get through since he finished with just three pass breakups and no interceptions in 10 games. Back to the drawing board.

“Dennard is already preaching on it now, and that is one of his biggest emphasis he places on our backend,” Maddox said, referring to the eyes. “I feel like that will improve your game a lot more because you’re not just breaking in on a quarterback, but you’re not really seeing where he is throwing it at if you don’t get your eyes there first.”

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Watch Out for Rookie Zech McPhearson

The Eagles waited until the fourth round (123rd overall) to take a cornerback, but they think they found a diamond in the rough. At 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, Zech McPhearson has been drawing rave reviews from both his new teammates and the draft experts. He could slide in at the nickel corner spot or even compete for the starting job over Maddox. Slay gave an early scouting report on the rookie.

“Quick twitch, got good ball skills,” Slay said. “He’s very aggressive and knows how to attack the ball.”

McPhearson has another added advantage coming into training camp: family pedigree. He has seven siblings — six brothers, one sister — who were all successful athletes. His father, Gerrick, played for the New England Patriots. His mom, Kim, played running back in the National Women’s Football League. Who was the best athlete in the household?

“I’m going to have to say me,” McPhearson said. “Growing up with all the older siblings and being in a house full of athletes, it can get real competitive in everything, so I really enjoyed it.”


Secondary ‘Energized’ Under New Coach

New defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon has refused to name or adhere to one specific scheme in 2021. No problem. Whatever the players are learning in the meeting rooms has been sticking. Gannon’s energy has them engaged and excited. It also has forged an identity on the backend which veteran safety Rodney McLeod thinks could result in a lot of wins.

“JG, a lot of energy, a lot of passion,” McLeod said of Gannon. “I think there’s gonna be a real big year for us as a defense. I’m excited when we can bring to the table especially within his scheme, you know, allowing everybody to utilize their skill sets. I think his defense is crafted for guys to succeed and really lock into what guys do best.”

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