As we prepare ourselves for football’s long-awaited return, questions abound regarding this new look Philadelphia team. With Howie Roseman looking to transition to a younger, more athletic squad, some familiar faces have walked out the door to give way to new up-and-comers. One of the players slated for a significantly increased role is last year’s addition, Duke Riley.
While the linebacker rotation has not fully sorted itself out yet — and may not for some time — the rumor mill has it that Riley could be a big part of the Birds plans in 2020. T.J. Edwards and Nate Gerry should occupy the first two LB spots, but the third is still up in the air with Duke being pressed by a number of other young players.
Rookies Davion Taylor and Shaun Bradley were selected as raw athletes that figure to grow within the system and will likely be in for reduced roles this season. Alex Singleton, a longtime PSN favorite, may be in store for some defensive snaps, but as it stands will likely spend most of his time on special teams. That leaves the third LB spot as Riley’s to lose.
What to Expect
There’s a reason Duke Riley was named a special teams captain last season after spending just a few weeks on the roster — effort. There’s also a reason he was a third round selection by the Falcons back in 2017. Coming from an incredibly talented LSU defense, Riley had pedigree and talent to boot. Although outshone by some of his teammates, Riley was never afraid to do the dirty work and put his body on the line. For those that paid attention, his selection came as no surprise.
Even as an undersized middle linebacker, Riley brings a physical edge to his play and is an all-around steady tackler. He has good form and will wrap and drive opponents instead of simply trying to lay a shoulder into them — as seen below. He’s not a very long player and has a limited tackle radius, but pursues well and generally puts himself in a good position to make the play.
Speaking of his pursuit, one of Duke’s best attributes is his play speed. His combine measurables were average, but inadequately represents his on-field play. He is a true sideline-to-sideline defender and can be found all over the field. He also has fairly impressive instincts and reacts to the football in a hurry. The Eagles will love his closing speed and downhill mentality. They are always looking for physical defenders that love to close gaps with pace and Duke Riley is exactly that.
In coverage, he absolutely has the requisite athleticism to stay with tight ends and bigger backs. His change of direction and route anticipation may get him into trouble against quicker backs and more apt route runners, but overall he’s a solid option. There are times he shows very impressive zone recognition, but he needs to show a bit more consistency in his coverage overall.
Being a player that relies on his speed and quickness, Duke can sometimes be in motion too often. In his early years, he hasn’t shown he has the requisite patience to play at a consistently high level. Admittedly, that will only get better with time spent on the field. The other bonus is that the Eagles defense is not one that relies on patience: they try to force opponents to play fast. Still, Riley would benefit immensely from slowing down his game and letting the play come to him. Even in limited action last season, this part of his game improved steadily.
Although a huge boon to his game, at worst, his active nature can cause lapses in coverage, and can sometimes get him lost in his zone. He really does showcase good instincts, but too often is he in no mans land trying to recover or gets fixated on the first action he sees. In Jim Schwartz’ scheme, the Eagles don’t need Duke to make incredible individual plays. Instead, they need him to play smart and clean up the havoc caused by the defensive line.
There is a lot to like about Riley’s physical edge, but it can’t always make up for his lack in size and length. He can get caught up on blocks, especially against longer offensive linemen. As a slicing gap-filler, he checks all the boxes — and this is mainly what he will be asked to do in Philly. He has no issue taking on blocks or lowering his shoulder when setting the edge, but his lack of length does show up on occasion.
Why he’s a Starter
On paper, Riley may be no more than the de facto starter, with the two rookies still having a lot to learn and Alex Singleton’s only real professional experience coming at the CFL level. However, Duke is much more than a placeholder for 2020.
The Eagles have made a habit of transforming special teamers into defensive contributors and Duke may very well be the next name on that list. Just by studying his tape you can tell why Jim Schwartz likes him. He’s constantly moving and plays with a tangible chip on his shoulder. The Birds have long been without a tone-setter in the middle of the defense and Riley is exactly that. The hope is that he will be able to replace some of the energy Nigel Bradham brought to the defense.
Speaking of energy, the young man has it in droves. He’s already become a vocal and emotional leader in the locker room and his personality is contagious in interviews. As Philadelphia begins to revamp their defense, maintaining culture should take a central role. Duke is one of those guys that you want in your locker room. He’s fun, he’s hard-working and you can tell he loves the game of football. Most of all, he bleeds green:
“It just felt right. It felt right when I walked in the building. It felt like I’m meant to be here.”Duke Riley in an interview with Dave Zangaro
Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire