After starting 16 games his first two seasons with the Falcons, Duke Riley hadn’t played a single defensive snap in 2019. But don’t try telling the new Eagles linebacker he lost his job in Atlanta.
“It wasn’t like my role was reduced,” Riley said Wednesday, his first time meeting with the media since he was traded to the Eagles for safety Johnathan Cyprien and a swap of late-round draft choices. “I just had some setbacks.”
A third-round pick in 2017, Riley’s tenure with the Falcons was viewed as a disappointment. Though he excelled on special teams, missed tackles were an issue, so much so it reportedly led to his being replaced in the starting lineup last December.
Is that the whole story? Riley thinks not, and admits there was “shock” initially upon learning he was dealt.
“I had two surgeries my first two years, so I guess that’s one of the reasons why,” said Riley, who’s dealt with some injuries — most notably, a torn meniscus during his rookie season. “And I made some plays that I wish I wouldn’t have made, which we all do. It’s the NFL, no one’s perfect.”
There are reasons to believe the Eagles hope to get more out of Riley. The club showed legitimate interest prior to the 2017 draft, hosting the LSU product on one of their top-30 visits. Apparently, there was buzz around the NovaCare Complex before the Eagles completed the trade for Riley, too.
“The guys said they’ve been talking about me here,” said Riley. “I guess they wanted me, so it’s good to be wanted.”
Riley, 25, measures 6-foot-1, 218 pounds with sub-4.6 speed. He’s also under contract through 2020, so the Eagles have the rest of this year and all of next to kick the tires, perhaps even coach him up.
“It was good for me to have a fresh start,” said Riley, who recorded 93 tackles and appeared in two playoff games with the Falcons. “It’s like coming into the NFL again, but I’m better because I know what to expect. I know what to do. I know how hard I work. I know what I bring. I know the energy I have.
“I know the type of guy that I am, so I think it will all work out for me.”
To begin with, Riley is behind Nigel Bradham, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Zach Brown and Nathan Gerry on the Eagles’ depth chart and will likely contribute exclusively on special teams. He’s basically taking the place of L.J. Fort, who was released last week.
Riley embraces that role, which is how he was able to hang on to a roster spot in Atlanta despite losing his grip on a starting job.
“Special teams is a good place to get ready for a game,” said Riley. “It’s a good place to learn and take shots. It’s a good place to work technique in your blocking or tackling, so I take special teams as serious as anything.”
Beyond this season, Grugier-Hill and Brown are currently slated to become free agents, so it’s not unfathomable Riley could play his way into a bigger part for the Eagles down the line. It’s a flyer entirely worth taking on a talented athlete who will bolster their special teams immediately — and maybe just needs to overcome a few “setbacks” to find success in the NFL.