Josh Sweat is one draft risk the Eagles took who might pay off
Sweat is no longer the great prospect that had the bad knee injury. He is healthy and refining his pass-rush moves
It has been six years now.
Six years since the defensive end some scouting services considered the nation’s top college football prospect, after he ran a 4.46 40 the summer before his senior year, tore three left knee ligaments, abruptly ending his high school career.
Last week, Josh Sweat recorded the fastest sack in the NFL, according to the league’s NextGenStats, Sweat needing just 2.3 seconds to sweep past Washington left tackle Geron Christian and hit quarterback Dwayne Haskins, forcing a fumble that Washington recovered.
Sweat is a 2018 Eagles fourth-round draft pick from Florida State who is carving out a prominent role in the team’s defensive end rotation, heading into the home opener Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams.
The knee injury was one hurdle he cleared to get to where Pro Football Focus gave him a 92.7 pass-rushing grade last week at Washington, the highest figure in the league. There were other obstacles -- he played behind guys like Chris Long and Michael Bennett initially -- but the biggest problem was that Sweat had to make up for having played in a read-and-react college defense that poorly prepared him to be a Jim Schwartz-style wide-nine edge rusher.
“You guys saw him in training camp. He’s one of our most improved players,” Schwartz, the Eagles' defensive coordinator, said this past week.
Schwartz said the main thing Sweat needed, in going from playing 7% of the defensive snaps as a rookie, to 34% last season, to 70% at Washington, was consistency in his pass-rushing mechanics. As he is wont to do, Schwartz used a baseball analogy, comparing Sweat to a pitcher.
“Those guys that their motion looks different all the time, they can have a great pitch, then all of a sudden throw four balls, walk the bases loaded,” Schwartz said. “And you just don’t know what you’re getting.”
Schwartz said defensive line coach and run game coordinator Matt Burke and fellow assistants Jeremiah Washburn and Nathan Ollie “have really emphasized that kind of stuff, that repeatable motion, consistency of [his] stance, and get-off. … It’s really shown through for him.”
Sweat said that to him, repeatable motion means: "Being consistent with my get-off. Working on things that I’m good at, and making sure I do it every time. Being on time off the ball. As long as I have a good get-off, I have a pretty good chance to win a pass rush.
“I’m still working on it, but it’s a lot better than where I came from. I definitely [worked] a lot in the offseason, just making sure I had somebody there to snap the ball, make sure I’m on time and keeping me up to speed with what I have to do.”
Veteran defensive end Vinny Curry started opposite Brandon Graham at Washington. But Curry left the game with a hamstring injury that would land him on injured reserve, giving Sweat more snaps in that game, and probably ensuring that Sweat will still have a prominent role this week, when 2017 first-round pick Derek Barnett rejoins the group. (Graham also left the Washington game, with a concussion, but is expected to play Sunday.)
Sweat’s father, William Washington, said more playing time was all Josh needed.
“He’s one of those guys that, the more he plays, the better he gets. … He’s having some fun now; he’s enjoying the game,” Washington said Friday from his home in the Tidewater, Va., area. “When he plays happy and free, he can do a lot of different things.”
FedEx Field is only about a three-hour drive from where Sweat grew up, with eight brothers and sisters, and Washington said that someone from the family gets to every one of Josh’s games. At home, it’s usually himself and his wife, Josh’s mom, Carlette Sweat, but otherwise, “we kind of rotate in and out.” That wasn’t possible last week, with the stadium closed to fans out of pandemic concerns.
“When you go to the road games, they give you bad seats, anyway,” Washington reasoned.
He watched Josh on TV, he said, saw the sack, didn’t think about it being the fastest.
“I didn’t know that was a stat,” Washington said. “This is the year he feels he has to produce, because it’s time to start looking at, is he going to be an Eagle long-term? We’re hoping he has a great year, gets to double-digit sacks.”
Sweat is in the third season of his four-year rookie contract. The Eagles probably will decide this offseason whether they want to extend that deal. Signs have been pointing up on that front since the second half of last season, in which Sweat compiled three of his four 2019 sacks.
Asked days ago what he expected coming into camp this season, Sweat first said he didn’t have any expectations, just came in focused on working hard, and so on. Pressed on whether he thought his play down the stretch last year qualified him for a larger role this year, he relented.
“One would think,” he said, flashing a smile. “Yeah, I thought I had a bigger role coming up, and it’s definitely here. I did expect that.”
Sweat was asked to detail the 2.3-second sack. Usually, for a sack to be timed in that range, the defender has to swoop in unblocked.
“Oh man, you want my secrets! It starts with a fast get-off,” he said. “I took a step at him, to make him think I was going to do a power rush, then I just dipped underneath – he tried to stop the power and I just went underneath him and bent the edge.”
In 2018, some NFL teams didn’t think Sweat would hold up well enough to make such a play, or would last until a third season.
“Without the knee injury, he’s a first-round pick,” ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said after the Eagles took Sweat 130th overall. Kiper complimented the Eagles on getting Sweat in the fourth round.
The injury, suffered on an extra-point play for Oscar F. Smith High in Chesapeake, Va., was gruesome; Sweat’s knee was badly dislocated, and when he got to the hospital, he was told he would probably never play football again. The hit was similar to the one that ended Eagles fullback Leonard Weaver’s career, in the 2010 opener against Green Bay, though the angle wasn’t the same, and damage turned out to be much less severe. Initially, a doctor warned Sweat that if arteries were affected, he would lose the lower part of his leg.
Sweat said this past week that he wasn’t really sure his knee was 100 percent until after he was drafted, when he worked with Eagles medical personnel to test and strengthen it.
“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,” he said. “We did everything we had to do to get it right. … It doesn’t affect me at all. I wear a brace anyways, that’s just something I’ve been doing.”
Washington said that to the family, Josh’s knee injury is ancient history.
“He really hasn’t had any problems; he came back from that injury in a year,” Washington said. “He never missed another football game because of that knee.”
Sweat had the build of a really tall, muscular tight end when he was drafted. The Eagles listed him at 6-foot-5, 251, and the latter figure seemed inflated. Washington noted that Sweat had turned 21 just before the draft, “hadn’t even got all [his] man-strength.” He said Josh weighed more than 260 when he was home this past offseason.
Washington said that when Josh wonders why reporters still ask about the knee, he tells him to embrace the comeback story.
“You can’t run from it; that’s your story – your diligence, your strength, your willingness to fight through, and get to the next level. … His drive is, ‘I want to do more than just be here,’ because that’s not the goal.”