The Jets recently poached defensive back Elijah Riley from the Eagles’ practice squad. Today, we break down Riley in detail.
The 23-year old Riley is listed at 6’0” and 205 pounds and was undrafted out of Army last season. He’s played in six NFL games but is yet to record any statistics.
Riley played high school football in the New York area and was recruited to Army in 2016, where he started 43 games in four years, including 32 straight at the end of his career.
As a freshman, Riley was called into action as a starter early on following the tragic death of his teammate Brandon Jackson and held his own as he recorded three interceptions.
In 2017, academic issues limited him to just five games, but he bounced back in 2018 with a career-high 10 pass breakups.
In 2019, he had his best season with career highs in tackles (79), sacks (four) and forced fumbles (three). He also intercepted three passes again, ending his career with over 200 tackles and seven interceptions.
Riley wasn’t invited to the scouting combine or the Senior Bowl, but did attend the East West Shrine Game. After going undrafted, he was picked up by the Eagles and attended camp with them.
After being released in final cuts, Riley spent most of the 2020 season on the practice squad, from where he was activated for two regular season games. He was then also signed to the roster and active for the final three games.
This year, he was again released in final cuts and placed on the practice squad and was elevated for one game. He’s played just four defensive snaps in his six regular season appearances.
Now let’s take a look at what Riley brings to the table, divided into categories.
Riley didn’t attend the combine or perform a pro day workout but the book on him was that he was considered too slow to play cornerback at the NFL level. He also has below average size and length.
Riley played almost exclusively as an outside cornerback at Army, although he started and played one game in the slot. He didn’t play safety, other than when there was no receiver on his side of the field, but did play off the ball and contribute in the box a lot.
With the Eagles, in preseason action, he mostly played as a deep safety as they mostly played two deep. However, his natural NFL position is probably strong safety.
With four years of experience as an outside corner, Riley has had more of a chance to develop his coverage skills than most young safeties. He showed improvement over the course of his career too, as he was beaten for nine touchdowns in his first three seasons, but none as a senior. For his career, he only allowed a 52 percent catch rate.
As noted, he’s not considered fast enough to play the cornerback position at the pro level and his film shows some signs of hip tightness and balance issues.
Here’s a play where Riley allows the receiver to get a leverage advantage and basically put him on his hip so he can’t recover back into the play. This suggests he also needed to build some strength.
On this play, he closes well on the tight end as he breaks to the outside and displays good timing on the disruption. However, he arguably gave the receiver too much room and a better pass could have been completed.
With seven interceptions and 21 passes defensed in his career, Riley has shown an ability to make plays on the ball. He also displayed this with an interception in preseason.
On this interception, he gets his head turned early so he can locate the football and make a play on it.
Riley was impressively productive for a cornerback with over 200 career tackles, including 79 in his final season. Part of this is perhaps the fact that Army always faced a few teams with run-heavy offenses.
When he wraps up, Riley is an efficient tackler and can pack a punch. However, he can be prone to missing tackles, especially in his senior year where he had 17.
He had three forced fumbles in his senior year, although those were the only ones of his career. Generally speaking, Riley seems to take conservative angles in pursuit, but he can overpursue when coming downhill.
Riley has made good contributions as a run defender, which is rare for an outside cornerback but speaks to his ability to move to a strong safety role.
He shows his willingness to come into the box and get his nose dirty while contributing in run support on this play.
Riley can be a big hitter and is willing to take on blockers as he shows on this short yardage run stuff.
In coverage, Riley was often employed in press coverage and showed an ability to slow up and disrupt receivers at the jam.
Riley hasn’t blitzed in preseason action with the Eagles, but it’s something he’s been adept at with 6.5 career sacks in college, including four in his senior year. He also generates pressure at a good rate when he blitzes.
Riley has plenty of experience on all special teams units, making an impact from the outset in his college career as he had three special teams tackles in his first ever game. He only ended up with eight special teams tackles in his career, but he showed these abilities by making a couple of coverage plays in preseason action with the Eagles.
He’s also proven to be good at pressuring extra points and field goals. He returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown at Army and also came off the edge to block this kick.
Riley has also seen action as a blocker in punt protection and on return units with one holding penalty in regular season action with the Eagles.
Riley showcases his intellect in a viral video where he recalls a 20-digit sequence in the middle of the workout. However, he did miss the first half of the 2017 season due to academic issues.
On the field, he’s showcased his versatility but he can sometimes be slow to react. On this play, he is in off coverage, but his eyes follow the quarterback and he flows in that direction as he rolls out, allowing the outside receiver on his side to get behind him for a deep touchdown.
Riley cannot afford to make that kind of downfield mistake when ranging deep from the safety position.
Coming from a military school, you would expect Riley to have solid character and discipline. He was a two-time captain in high school and as a senior at Army.
In terms of his on-field discipline, Riley had 13 penalties in four seasons. Three of those came in coverage against Michigan in one of his tougher matchups.
This was his only penalty at the NFL level. You can see he competes well but drags his man down to draw the obvious flag.
As noted, the only time missed by Riley in college was due to academics rather than injuries and he hasn’t had any injury issues at the NFL level other than a couple of days missed for a minor injury in camp.
As noted, Riley’s natural NFL position is probably strong safety but he has some versatility. Since he lacks NFL experience, he may be a bit of a project.
Former teammates of Riley while with the Eagles include current Jets Joe Flacco, Vinny Curry and Ross Pierschbacher.
Riley was added to the Jets’ roster after the Marcus Maye injury with depth needed in the defensive secondary and he has to remain on their active roster for at least three weeks by rule because he was poached from another team’s practice squad.
He perhaps has more potential as a special teamer than as a defensive contributor but if he gets a chance for some defensive reps, it will be interesting to see how he handles himself.