PHILADELPHIA - Things weren't working out for Duke Riley in Atlanta.
The former third-round pick known for his work ethic was grinding as hard as ever but perhaps not quite as smart as he would have liked.
"I was praying for a change because I was caught in a hole," the former LSU star said. "I was digging a hole and felt like I was just digging myself deeper."
Injuries and expectations as a high-level draft pick seemed to engulf Riley, 26, with the Falcons.
"I tore my knee my first game," he said. "I played with it torn because it was just a meniscus. I didn’t get an MRI. It was pretty much that injury and then the next year, I tear my groin.
"I was like, I’m doing everything I can, I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked, I’m putting extra time in, I’m first one in the building, last one to leave. I’m doing everything I can, and stuff just wasn’t going my way.
“I never really looked at it as, man, this is almost over. I just looked at it like, I’m going to get out of this; I can’t feel sorry for myself."
The old adage, of course, is to stop digging when you find yourself in a hole and Riley finally put down his shovel by asking for a change to his higher power.
"I was praying for a change," he said. "... I was praying. I was literally praying, like, ‘I don’t want to get cut, but I need a change, I need something new.’ I promise, like God, a week or two later after praying, (the Falcons) called me."
A different path emerged due to Keanu Neal's injury with the Falcons last season. Atlanta was in the market for a safety. The Eagles had an extra one in Johnathan Cyprien and were in need of another linebacker and special teams player.
"Keanu Neal went down and the GM (Thomas Dimitroff) never really called me when I was in Atlanta, so he called my phone and I was teaching my little boy how to play t-ball at the time," said Riley. "I remember it like yesterday. He just calls me and says, ‘Hey, Philadelphia was calling for you and they want you.’"
The second chance Riley was longing for finally materialized and Riley was on his way to the Eagles, arriving on Sept. 30 and ultimately developing into one of the team's best special-teams players, good enough and respected enough to be named ST captain for the wild-card weekend playoff game against Seattle.
"I’m like, damn, it feels good to be wanted," Riley said of the trade. "And I'm just like, it’s not just any team that’s calling for me. It’s the Philadelphia Eagles and I know about this organization. They just won a Super Bowl a couple years prior. They’re always constantly competing in the playoffs."
Everything fit from the familiarity of a good friend in fellow LSU standout Jalen Mills to his relationship with special teams coach Dave Fipp and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
"I knew Jalen was here, I knew some other guys on the team," he said. "I actually took an official visit here during the process, so I knew a couple of the guys. It just felt right. It felt right when I walked in the building. It felt like I’m meant to be here."
Defense wasn't much of an option for Riley last season. He arrived late and veterans Nigel Bradham and Kamu Grugier-Hill were still in Philadelphia, but the decks were cleared in the offseason with the only constant projected as Ken Flajole-favorite Nate Gerry.
After that, Schwartz had high hopes for second-year player T.J. Edwards and Riley with the former having the leg up.
Fast forward to the 12 open practices in a truncated summer and Riley turned that dynamic on its head with his speed and athleticism.
Knowing the way Schwartz goes about things, the second linebacking role could change from week to week with power-run teams seeing the 242-pound Edwards more and pass-heavy teams getting the 224-pound Riley. Needless to say, there are more NFL teams in Riley's category.
"Came here and I just dug deep, I just dug deeper and I’m still digging deeper as I go," said Riley. "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 or covering kicks and then playing a position. I’ll do whatever it takes."
The turn for Riley came from taking stock of his life.
"Honestly, when I first got in the league, I had a lot of personal stuff going on," he said. "... I cleaned up some off-the-field stuff I had going on with my personal life, family situation, stuff like that."
The key, according to Riley, was surrounding himself with positivity.
"I just started to put all positive stuff around me, positive people," said Riley. "If it wasn’t helping me, then I was just separating myself. Not that I was changing on people, it’s just that in life you’re going through stuff. We’re not just football players. We all have different problems. We all have stuff that’s going on.
"The type of guy that I am, I try to help everyone. So I kind of had to step back and realized that I needed to help myself first before I had to help other people. That was the main thing."
John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John every Monday and Friday on SIRIUSXM, and every Tuesday and Thursday with Eytan Shander on SBNation Radio. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen
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