On this Eagles team, it’s not all that easy to find a player who has made steady progress over a three-year period. That’s one reason the team is 4-8-1 heading into Sunday’s outing in Arizona, against the 7-6 Cardinals.
Defensive end Josh Sweat is that Eagles rarity – a medical gamble that worked, a player whose performance has exceeded the value of his draft position, and a guy who has gotten at least a little better every year he has played.
Sweat, a fourth-round pick out of Florida State in 2018, isn’t a Pro Bowl candidate yet, but he has a career-high six sacks this season. He notched two of them in last week’s 24-21 victory over the New Orleans Saints, including the pivotal play of the afternoon.
New Orleans was driving for the lead after cutting a 17-0 deficit to 17-14, when Sweat strip-sacked Taysom Hill midway through the fourth quarter. Javon Hargrave recovered the fumble and the Eagles drove for what proved to be the winning touchdown.
“Some of the plays, we noticed that he was holding the ball,” Sweat said after the game, referring to what he saw in watching film of Hill. “We figured it would be a lot of ‘boot’ and stuff like that, so we would have opportunities. I’ll be honest, when he did that sprint out, I was like, ‘Damn, I might not make it.’ Something just made me keep running, and he held onto the ball, and I pretty much saw an opportunity to strip the ball out. I thought I was going to get the recovery, but good thing my boy was there.”
You might be familiar with the outline of how Sweat got here – he was a five-star prospect at Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake, Va., until he tore all three knee ligaments, an injury so severe that a doctor initially told him he might lose his lower leg, if arteries were affected. He was told he wouldn’t play football again.
Sweat rehabbed, played 35 games at Florida State, but getting confidence back in the knee was a long process, and the read-and-react scheme the Seminoles used at the time wasn’t a great fit for a slender, long-armed speed rusher. When he got to the Eagles he was most comfortable in a four-point stance, which you don’t see much out on the edge.
Even after Sweat (6-foot-5, 251) topped edge rushers at the 2018 NFL scouting combine with a 4.53 40 and a 39.5-inch vertical leap, some teams wondered about how much mileage his repaired knee had left in it. There were reports that he’d been removed from some draft boards.
“Without the knee injury, he’s a first-round pick,” ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said after the Eagles took Sweat, 130th overall.
Sweat managed to get on the field for just 68 defensive snaps as a rookie; he ended the season on injured reserve with an ankle injury, but Sweat later said the year was mostly about doing more work – different work – on his knee.
“My first couple of months here, they took care of it in a great way. That’s when I first started to feel back to my normal self,” Sweat said earlier this season. “We did everything we had to do to get it right. … It doesn’t affect me at all [now].”
In 2019, Sweat got 34% of the team’s defensive snaps, and tallied four sacks. This year, he’s up to 46%, and has started three games, the first starts of his NFL career. Three of his top four 2020 overall Pro Football Focus grades were compiled over the last five weeks.
“It’s coming to him even more. I think he always practiced hard, did some good things, showed some flashes, but now I feel like he’s putting it all together as he continues to get through this season,” fellow defensive end Brandon Graham said this week. “Even more, I just see how his confidence has grown, especially in practice, and it’s showing up in the game.
“I think Josh Sweat has definitely worked his way up, because he’s hungry.”
Sweat doesn’t turn 24 until March 29. We might not have yet seen everything he can become.
“Josh is just a dog, man, when his number is called he always produces,” Hargrave said this week. “He’s one of the better pass rushers I’ve been around in this league. … He’s just unique, he’s got his own little style.
“He’s got a little -- he likes to call it the little Robert Quinn, he’s got his little Robert Quinn move. He’s got a crazy long arm, he’s just freakish athletic, he’s just different, he’s just a good player.”
Quinn is a 10th-year veteran pass rusher currently playing for the Bears. He has 81.5 sacks and 27 forced fumbles. Early in his career, he made the Pro Bowl twice and once was chosen All-Pro. Like Sweat, he is known for his long arms; Sweat bests Quinn there, 34 ⅝ to 34.
On one of Sweat’s sacks against the Saints, you could see him use his arms to keep New Orleans tackle Terron Armstead from getting into Sweat’s body. Sweat basically maintained a stiff-arm of the tackle until he was past him and closing on Hill.
Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox noted Sweat’s hard work in practice and added, “For him to take that that into a game against a really, really good football player in Armstead was very pleasing to see.”
With the secondary depleted by injury, the Eagles might need their defensive line to come up as big this week as it did against the Saints, when it sacked Hill five times. Sweat was asked if the D-line feels extra pressure in such situations.
“We put it on ourselves anyway,” he said. “Before every game, throughout the week, we always say to ourselves we’re going to be the engine. Everybody [is] going to feed off of us. It never changes. We always come into the game knowing if we do well, we will always have a shot in any game, no matter what, that’s the approach we take.”
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was asked this week if Sweat might do even better if he were given more snaps. Sweat played 25 of 63 against New Orleans.
Schwartz lauded Sweat for the strip-sack but also noted that Hill had to hold the ball because rookie linebacker Shaun Bradley saw a coverage bust developing and covered the receiver Hill was about to target. Schwartz likes to keep pass rushers fresh, doesn’t want them to wear down.
“That’s a little bit of chicken or egg,” Schwartz said. “I think that like I’ve said before, our defensive line, it’s more about the production of the group. Josh making that sack probably had a lot to do with Shaun Bradley and his role in that coverage, just bought time. … [Hill] was trying to sort it out, trying to find somebody, and Josh was able to make that play. … It’s not always them making the play themselves.
“We’ve always had confidence in him. He’s played a lot of football for us and we’ll continue to rotate those guys up front. … It’s going to be tough duty this week with a mobile quarterback [Kyler Murray] because it uses up a lot of gasoline for those defensive linemen.”
If Sweat does develop into a difference-making pass rusher, he’s going to need a nickname. Eagles left tackle Jordan Mailata calls Sweat “Sweaty J.”
“He’s a freak. Just very, like, athletic,” Mailata said. “Very unorthodox movements, that suit his style. … Sweaty J. has some long guns, and it shows.”