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Elijah Riley Has Gone From Eagles Practice Squad to Jets Starter

The West Point product has quickly emerged as a contributor with the Jets

PHILADELPHIA - The Jets had plenty of intelligence on Elijah Riley, the former Eagles' defensive back who was pilfered from the Philadelphia practice squad on Nov. 9.

The Eagles' secondary coach in 2020 when Riley arrived as an undrafted free agent out of Army last season, Marquand Manuel, is now performing the same duties for Jets coach Robert Saleh. Also on Saleh's staff is one of Jim Schwartz's most trusted lieutenants, Matt Burke, the Dartmouth grad who is helping the Jets rookie head coach with game management.

The biggest connection, however, is Joe Douglas, the ex-Eagles VP of player personnel who had already left to become the Jets' GM when Riley arrived in Philadelphia.

While there is no direct causal connection with Douglas to Riley remember who got elevated in the Eagles' organization when Douglas was offered his promotion, his former right-hand man Andy Weidl.

Douglas and Weidl remain very close and have a lot of the same sentiments when it comes to evaluating prospects. In other words, if Weidl likes a prospect, you can almost guarantee Douglas does as well and vice versa.

Such was the case with Riley, who the Jets first tried to poach last season, something Saleh confirmed earlier this week.

“I guess [Douglas] was trying to poach him last year, so, there was obviously a liking from a year ago with Joe from an evaluation standpoint,” Saleh said.

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The difference this season is that the poacher also came with an obvious opportunity the Eagles simply couldn't match even if they found a 53-man roster spot for Riley, not with Rodney McLeod, Anthony Harris, Marcus Epps, and K'Von Wallace on the depth chart.

"I liked Elijah a lot, we all did," defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon said. "It just comes down to those decisions being made by [Eagles Executive Vice President/General Manager] Howie [Roseman] and [Eagles Head Coach] Nick [Sirianni].

"You've got to balance a lot of different things with the roster and special teams and who's up and a pair and a spare and all that stuff. So, it was tough to see him walk out of the building because, obviously, he's a good player, but we feel good about the guys that we have now."

The Jets were desperate for help on the back end when one of their best defenders, safety Marcus Maye, was lost to a season-ending Achilles' injury. So, when Douglas came sniffing around this time, he not only had the roster spot, something the Eagles could have matched, but also had the familiar faces on the coaching staff and the carrot of playing time.

"Having Burke here and Marquand, they were in Philadelphia last year also, to just piggyback and talk about him and kind of reaffirm everything Joe had been talking about since the day we walked in," Saleh said. "It was kind of an easy pickup."

An easy pickup paying early dividends for New York.

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Riley has started two games with the Jets and played 109 defensive snaps, tallying 11 tackles, including a key one for a loss in a win over Houston last week. Riley's Pro Football Focus grade over that small sample size would be in the top 20 around the league at the position and above every Eagles safety.

"He’s been a ball magnet over the first three weeks. His superpower is his mental horsepower. He is a very smart young man," Saleh said of his new starting safety. "He can process very quickly, he does a great job communicating pre- and post-snap. He triggers, he’s a hair-trigger type player in that when he sees it, he is 100 miles an hour to the ball. But he’s very accurate when he does see it.

"He’s been impressive in these first three weeks, and we’re excited to see him grow over these next six weeks to see what he can make out of the season."

Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert figures to see a lot of Riley on Sunday when the 5-7 Eagles visit the 3-8 Jets.

"I went against him a lot in camp, he’d guard me," Goedert said. "And shoot, even all throughout the years, he’d be on the scout team. I went up against him a lot. He’s a super hard worker. He’s a great guy. He wants to get better. I wish all the best for him in New York."

Harris had similar thoughts for the young player he got to mentor a bit.

"He’s a great dude, great personality, hard worker, works for everything," the veteran safety said. "Excited for the opportunity that he’s gotten there. We look forward to seeing him on the field and competing against each other."

Riley is also a Long Island native and used to attend Jets' practices at Hofstra University so close to home for him got even closer with the move to the NYJ.

“It’s a dream come true,” Riley admitted. “Hometown kid playing for a hometown team. It’s amazing.”

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-John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talk host Jody McDonald every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on both PhillyVoice.com and YouTube. John is also the host of his own show "Extending the Play" on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen

Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles or www.eaglemaven.com and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.