Duke Riley opens up about tough path to become Eagles starter

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Duke Riley remembers exactly where he was and what he was doing when Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff called him with news that changed his life.

Riley was teaching his son how to play t-ball when his prayers were answered.

“I was praying for a change because I was caught in a hole,” Riley said last week. “I was digging a hole and felt like I was just digging myself deeper. I was praying. I was literally praying, like, ‘I don’t want to get cut, but I need a change, I need something new.’

“I promise … a week or two later after praying, they called me."

The call from Dimitroff was about a trade to Philadelphia. The Eagles were interested in Riley and the Falcons wanted Johnathan Cyprien after safety Keanu Neal went down with an injury. So Riley and a 6th-round pick came to Philly and Cyprien and a 7th went to Atlanta.

Less than a year later, the 26-year-old Riley is in a completely different position.

After getting traded last season, Riley eventually became a special teams captain and favorite in the locker room by season’s end. And this year, he’s going to be a starting linebacker with the chance to finally live up to his potential.

“Unfortunately I was at a low point in my career in Atlanta,” Riley said, “and here I knew it was a fresh start.”

Until coming to Philadelphia, Riley’s career certainly wasn’t going to plan. The Falcons drafted Riley out of LSU in the 3rd round back in 2017. In his rookie season, Riley tore a meniscus in his knee. In his second season, he tore his groin.


And the whole time, he was dealing with what he called a “family situation.”

Riley said this week that it just felt like the more he tried to right his career in Atlanta, the deeper the hole became.

“I was like, I’m doing everything I can, I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked, I’m putting extra time in, I’m first one in the building, last one to leave,” he said. “I’m doing everything I can and stuff just wasn’t going my way. I never really looked at it as, man, this is almost over. I just looked at it like, I’m going to get out of this; I can’t feel sorry for myself.

“I cleaned up some off-the-field stuff I had going on with my personal life, family situation, stuff like that. I just started to put all positive stuff around me, positive people. If it wasn’t helping me, then I was just separating myself. Not that I was changing on people, it’s just that in life you’re going through stuff. We’re not just football players. We all have different problems. We all have stuff that’s going on. The type of guy that I am, I try to help everyone. So I kind of had to step back and realized that I needed to help myself first before I had to help other people. That was the main thing. That was really it.”

Riley arrived in Philadelphia just before Week 5. He knew the way to win over his new coaches and his new teammates was to work hard and prove himself on special teams.

While Riley played just 29 defensive snaps for the Eagles in 2019, he became a major contributor on Dave Fipp’s special teams units. Despite not arriving in Philadelphia until after a quarter of the season was over, Riley still managed to play 254 special teams snaps, fourth-most on the team. And once Kamu Grugier-Hill was done for the season, Riley was named the Eagles’ special teams captain.

That’s how quickly he won over everyone in the NovaCare Complex.

“I just need to take it and go hard every day,” Riley said. “That’s kind of how I earned my respect in the building, by going hard every day. But I was doing the same things that I was doing in Atlanta. That’s why I felt like I was digging a hole.

“I’ve always been known, you can ask anyone that’s ever played in the locker room with me, that I’m going to work hard and I’m going to go hard for everybody. I think that’s kind of how I pretty much earned my respect, by being the same guy every day, no matter if I’m feeling bad, feeling sick. I built up a standard for myself that I have to upkeep every day and I’m all about that.”


This season, Riley is going to be one of the Eagles’ three starting linebackers. Nate Gerry is the top ‘backer but then Riley and T.J. Edwards are right after him. There’s a chance Riley will play a ton on defense in 2020.

And he’s still absolutely one of the favorite players on the team among his teammates.

At one training camp practice this season, Riley picked off a pass and took it the other way. Normally, when someone picks off a ball, there’s a celebration, maybe a few guys go crazy. When Riley picked off that pass, the entire defense went nuts, guys were screaming, lining up to congratulate him.

They see how hard he’s worked. And they might not even understand how far he’s come.

“It just felt right,” Riley said. “It felt right when I walked in the building. It felt like I’m meant to be here.”