This wasn’t a trade that sent shockwaves through the fans and, frankly, it may not change the course of business for the Philadelphia Eagles on the field. But a deeper dive into the deal that sent safety Johnathan Cyprien and a 2020 seventh-round draft pick (Tampa Bay’s pick, acquired in the deal that brought wide receiver DeSean Jackson to the Eagles) to Atlanta for linebacker Duke Riley and a 2020 sixth-round draft pick reveals some details and complexities to give you a better understanding why it’s a good deal for the Eagles and, from the Falcons’ standpoint, one that works for Atlanta.
First, the players involved: Cyprien was signed by the Eagles early (August 2) in Training Camp after making a recovery from a knee injury suffered one year earlier, when he played for Tennessee. Known as a box safety who in his career made his name more in run support than in space covering pass receivers, Cyprien made the 53-man roster and played one defensive snap in each of the first three regular-season games before playing 12 snaps in Green Bay on Thursday, primarily because the Eagles were depleted from injuries in the secondary and Malcolm Jenkins played in the slot as a cornerback with Andrew Sendejo playing alongside Rodney McLeod.
Those injuries haven’t exactly gone away, and it remains to be seen who is going to be healthy for Sunday when the Jets come to town, but the Eagles were clearly comfortable sending Cyprien, a player who wasn’t going to ever fit perfectly into the way the Eagles position their safeties – splitting the field, with range a prerequisite – to Atlanta in the trade. Cyprien fits for the Falcons, who play one of their safeties in the box. Losing standout safety Keanu Neal two games ago put the Falcons in a jam, and they hope that Cyprien can come in and fill a void.
The Eagles basically used a player on a one-year contract with fringe roster value here – and that’s no offense to Cyprien, a fine man who deserves a lot of respect for working so hard to come back from his injury and contribute to the Eagles on special teams, a role that he accepted – and turned it into a young linebacker, Riley, who was a third-round draft pick a few springs ago and who has the rest of this season and all of next year on his rookie contract to help Philadelphia.
Now, about Riley: A third-round draft pick from LSU in 2017, Riley started his rookie season, one that got off to a promising start before he suffered a meniscus tear in his knee. Riley returned from the injury and started through the postseason, which included the NFC Divisional Round game at Lincoln Financial Field against the Eagles. Riley earned the starting weakside linebacker job in 2018 and then fell out of favor in Atlanta. This season, Riley’s primary contribution came on special teams.
So, how can Riley help the Eagles in 2019? That is a good question. The Eagles have grades on every player in the league and they have a keen understanding of who might be on the trading block or who might be a roster casualty, and in this case, they were aware of Riley’s reduction in playing time in Atlanta and his potential availability.
Riley will get a chance to contribute on special teams right away and he’ll get into the playbook and learn as quickly as possible. The Eagles released L.J. Fort on Friday when they signed cornerback Orlando Scandrick, so Riley fills that seat in the linebacker room. The Eagles are also likely to ramp up the snap count for Kamu Grugier-Hill, who saw his first action of the season in Green Bay after suffering a knee injury in Training Camp.
As much as Riley will have a chance to fit in this season, he’ll have an opportunity to start on an even playing field for 2020. This requires a bit of long-term vision here, as the Eagles get their hands on a former high draft pick who is on his rookie contract and who was a starting linebacker in a really good defense not that long ago.
Then there is the draft pick exchange, which clearly benefits the Eagles in 2020. The Falcons are a struggling 1-3 football team and that sixth-round draft pick could, if Atlanta continues to lose, end up being a high pick in that low round. In any event, it is a full round higher than the pick dealt, so there is value there.
You know that Howie Roseman and his personnel staff are always on the lookout. The roster, as it is constructed now, has had a bunch of moving pieces with all of the injuries on both sides of the ball. The NFL’s trade deadline is October 29 at 4 p.m. What is going to happen between now and then? Stay tuned. You never know with Roseman, one of the league’s most willing and calculated movers and shakers.
As much as he likes the roster as it stands now, he knows it can always improve. The vision is not just for 2019, but for some seasons in the future. That’s the way to look at the acquisition of Duke Riley, a linebacker and special teams player still young in his NFL career who has an upside and a skill set that the Eagles liked enough to bring to Philadelphia for what amounts to an extended evaluation period, with an improved position late in the 2020 NFL Draft another benefit of Monday’s deal.