The hard work and the long road have always been part of the path Eagles defensive end Josh Sweat has taken and here he is in his fifth NFL season, a Pro Bowl player who is as humbled by the progress he has made as anyone you will ever meet. Way back in high school, Sweat was a five-star football recruit and, by some measures, the top scholastic player in the entire country.
Then came the hurdles – wait, we're talking way more than hurdles here. In a high school game, a freak injury happened as Sweat was rushing on a point-after kick, his cleat got caught in the grass at the exact time a teammate came crashing into the leg, and the result was absolute destruction – three ligaments torn, a knee that came out of its socket, and the entire leg twisted and mangled. Sweat was told at the time that it was unlikely he would ever play football again. But in a medical miracle, Sweat was made whole again.
All of those colleges recruiting him stayed in the picture and Sweat chose Florida State and proved to everyone that he was still big and still fast and still quick and the kind of freakishly rangy defensive end that would be a problem in the NFL if he were given the chance.
"All you can ask for is the opportunity," Sweat says now, five years after the Eagles made him the 130th player selected in the 2018 NFL Draft. "And then you have to make the most of that opportunity."
Sweat has done just that, slowly and steadily in his time as an Eagle. As a rookie, he saw action in nine games and 68 defensive snaps. He had one tackle.
"Long time ago. I guess you could say I've come a long way since then," he said. "My whole thing has been just staying patient and working hard and getting better. Just grinding and never taking anything for granted. I've put in the work and I'm still doing it. I knew if I kept my head down, kept pushing, that I would put it together. That's still my mentality. I think there is a lot more to get to. A lot ahead of me."
From that year one dip into the NFL pool, Sweat has taken the right steps forward and the Eagles have been able to bring him along the same way – with a patient, yet firm hand, understanding that Sweat was a rising talent who would continue on the right path. He played more in 2019, pitching in with four quarterback sacks, 27 quarterback pressures, and 19 total tackles, and by 2020, Sweat was on the way to being a force – both as a pass rusher and as an edge setter against the run.
It was about that time that Sweat also developed, with the help from quarterback Jalen Hurts, a post-sack celebration.
"At practice, before I was about to do a rep in practice, I looked to the sideline and Hurts made a move like he was wiping the sweat from his brow and I got the sack in practice and since then, I've been doing it," Sweat said. "Everyone seems to like it, so I've been trying to get it to take off. I've been trying to get those sacks."
And he's been getting them. More and more. From four in 2019 to six in 2020 and then, moving into a full-time starting role in 2021, registering 7.5 sacks, 41 quarterback pressures, and 13 quarterback hits before suffering a spleen injury late in the year.
Sweat received the call to play in the Pro Bowl late in the postseason and, without hesitation, he accepted. The significance was obvious: He had been acknowledged. There was league-wide respect for his game.
"Being there with all of those players, I was in awe," Sweat said. "I felt like the little kid in the room, like I didn't belong. At first, it was a little bit scary being there but then I relaxed and used that time to get to know the guys and talk about football and life and they made me feel like I was one of them. That experience was such a boost of confidence for me and coming into this year, I was ready to take my game to another level."
Sweat has done just that. He has been a force off the edge with his get-off at the snap of the football and his long arms and ability to bend his 6-foot-5, 265-pound torso has resulted in another step forward: Through 15 games, Sweat has 11 sacks, 15 tackles for loss, 23 QB hits, 47 QB pressures, and an interception return for a touchdown.
In other words, a career season.
"I feel like I'm in a stretch where I'm all over the field," Sweat said. "You can feel it. It just happens. At a certain point in the season, everyone has their own time and I think this is it for me. I've been having a great past few weeks and, without even noticing it or understanding why, my play started rising. You don't notice it when it happens. I've been playing well all season. I've felt that. Then we got to the Tennessee game and it just took off for me. It just came to me.
"I had the opportunities and I took advantage of it. We're winning and it spreads. Everyone is happy for each other. Everybody is in the right place. Nobody is selfish and we're all helping each other. We keep encouraging each other and, you know, like Nick (Sirianni, head coach) says, just trying to get a little bit better every day."
Sweat is moving on, moving up. The Eagles made sure Sweat knew he was part of their big plans when they signed him to a contract extension through 2024. They saw the ability in the 2018 NFL Draft, and now they see that the time and effort spent has been well worth it on both sides: Sweat is part of a powerhouse defense and defensive line that is playing its best football heading into the postseason. The goals are high for everyone, especially for a guy who didn't accept it when doctors told him his career was over before, really, it started.
"Shoot, I love this game and I know that I'm blessed to be playing it, with this team. Everything is perfect," said Sweat. "Life is good, man. We just need to keep putting in the work, keeping our focus. Everybody just does his job and we're going to be OK. I've had a lot of growth, but I still feel like I have a lot more inside me and that's what is exciting, to get that last part out. That's what I'm working for."