Eagles LB Duke Riley Dishes on Falcons Breakup: ‘Man, It Feels Good to be Wanted’

Duke Riley

Getty Eagles LB Duke Riley has turned into a key special-teams player and now a team captain for Philadelphia.

Duke Riley would never make excuses for the disappointing start to his career. That self-described “low point” in Atlanta was complicated.

The former Falcons linebacker fought through two painful injuries in his first two NFL seasons — a torn meniscus in 2017, then a groin tear in 2018 — while battling rough criticism after an embarrassing missed tackle went viral. The pressure was mounting on Riley who was dealing with some personal issues off the field, too — family stuff that he needed to clean up and pray on. Then, the Philadelphia Eagles called and everything changed for the better.

“It’s not just any team that is calling for me, it’s the Philadelphia Eagles,” Riley told reporters on Wednesday. “And I know about this organization. I know they just won the Super Bowl a couple of years prior. It felt right when I walked in the building. It felt like I was meant to be here.”

Riley, a third-round pick in 2017, recalled the conversation with Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff informing him that the Eagles were interested in trading for him. It was the change Riley had been praying for, a way out of the hole he had dug (and kept digging) for himself in Atlanta.

“Man, it felt good to be wanted,” Riley said of that conversation. “I was praying for a change because I was kind of in a hole like I was digging a hole and I felt like I was digging myself deeper.”

Whatever happened in Atlanta is dead and gone. That hole has been buried with six feet of dirt.

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Riley Battling for Starting Spot in Philly

When the Eagles traded for Riley last September, they kind of knew what they were getting. He had been on their radar going back to 2017 when Philadelphia hosted the young linebacker from LSU for an official pre-draft workout. Funny how life works sometimes, right?

Now Riley has a legitimate shot at a starting role for the Eagles after an impressive training camp. He’s flashed his play-making ability on the field in Jim Schwartz’s complicated defensive scheme while serving as a mentor to the younger linebackers in the locker room. The leadership aspect of Riley’s game isn’t by accident, it’s part of the standard he sets for himself.

“You can ask everybody in the locker room,” Riley said. “I’m going to work hard and go hard for everybody. That’s the standard I set for myself.”

That was evident on special teams last year where Riley played on 254 snaps in 12 games, all of them at 110-percent. He’s the walking definition of a high-motor guy and takes the same amount of pride in covering kicks as he does making third-down tackles. Riley endured three years of strictly special-teams work at LSU before finally earning a starting spot as a senior. The Eagles named him their special-teams captain on Jan. 2.

“I knew coming here that the quickest way to impress the coaches was on special teams,” Riley said. “I’m not perfect, no one is. I do whatever I have to do to put myself and the team in a position to win whether it’s helping guys, whether it’s covering kicks or playing defense. I’ll do whatever it takes.”

Huge Jalen Mills Fan, Like My Brother

One smiling face greeting Riley when he arrived in Philly was Jalen Mills. The two played together for three years at LSU, including the 2014 Outback Bowl where Riley got a birds-eye view of Mills’ debut at safety. Riley expects big things for his good friend, one of the best competitors he’s ever been around.

“I just know Jalen, whatever you ask him to do, he’ll do it,” Riley said. “He’s probably one of the best competitors I’ve been around as a defensive back. I know he’s going to be able to take on a run. He’s never been afraid to take a hit, never been afraid to hit.”

Mills was the first person to call Riley upon learning of his trade to Philly. He’s been a calming influence and steadying force in his maturation process, too.

“I’ve been around him for some time. I’m a huge Mills fan,” Riley said. “I love him to death. He’s like my brother. He was one of the guys that took me in when I first got here and showed me the ropes and how everything is.”

And Riley has tried to pay it forward by taking rookie linebackers Shaun Bradley and Davion Taylor under his wing. He’s been telling them to “take it one day at a time” and “not look ahead to what’s next.” He admits it’s going to be a challenge for them to adjust to the speed of the game with no preseason but feels confident in their abilities.

“They are quick learners,” Riley said. “They come in every day and are ready to work, and they are great listeners. They are soaking up everything and constantly getting better each and every day.”

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