How long did it take undrafted rookie Eli Ricks to feel like he belonged in the NFL?
About as long as it took him to step onto the field for his first practice in an Eagles uniform.
Ricks has been one of the biggest surprises of this 2023 Eagles season, gradually morphing into a reliable backup outside corner as well as a legit slot after starting out training camp as a longshot undrafted rookie.
“I always felt that I belonged in the NFL,” Ricks said at his locker Thursday. “Once I knew the system, I felt like I belonged. I have a God-given talent. So once I know the plays, I feel like my talent will show.”
Ricks was inactive in the opener and played just one defensive snap the next three games. But with the secondary in shambles because of injuries, he finally earned playing time against the Rams and played well enough in his true NFL debut to earn some more.
He’s played 13, 12 and 14 snaps the last three weeks and has been targeted nine times, allowing four receptions for 40 yards. On Sunday, facing the No. 1 Dolphins offense, he was targeted three times and didn’t allow a completion. Opposing QBs have a 57.6 passer rating when Ricks is the primary defender. And he’s already faced Cooper Kupp and Tyreek Hill.
It’s a very limited sample size, but of 131 corners who’ve played at least 40 defensive snaps this year, that 57.6 passer rating is 17th-best.
“You could see right away,” Darius Slay said. “He’s a pretty talented, pretty fluent guy. Good footwork. All you’ve got to do is continue to keep growing and keep working, really. Sky’s the limit. I’m for sure rooting for him. I want him to keep doing these things.”
Ricks certainly doesn’t carry himself like an undrafted player or a rookie. He’s got that Alabama swagger, he looks the part at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, and he doesn’t back down from even the most accomplished receivers. More on that in a minute.
“I like his mentality, his toughness,” defensive coordinator Sean Desai said. “He is a competitor, so he is kind of showing that. He’s a sponge. He keeps wanting to learn and grow in his roles on the defense, and he’s done that.”
The biggest play of Ricks’ brief career so far came with Sunday night with the Eagles leading 31-17 and trying to put the Dolphins away. Miami faced a fourth-and-10 with 3 ½ minutes left, and Ricks found himself covering Hill, the NFL receiving leader and a future Hall of Famer.
Tua Tagovailoa dropped back and locked in on Hill – why wouldn’t he? – but Ricks had elite coverage and batted the ball away, effectively ending the game.
“When he motioned across, usually most of the time he motioned across he ran a wheel when he motioned inside the No. 2 receiver,” Ricks said. “So I was expecting a wheel and I got outside leverage. But then I saw the way he came off the ball, I knew he wasn’t going to be running a wheel. I knew he was going to stop it so I ran the route and I was already outside leverage. So he would have had to run through me to (make the catch).
“You know, he is a great receiver. He could be a Hall of Fame receiver one day. But as long as I have the game plan, I believe in myself and it doesn’t matter who’s in front of me, I feel like I should be there to make the play. And on that fourth down, I didn’t want to hear the fans go, ‘Ahhhhhh,’ I didn’t want to hear that so I wanted to make sure I made that play if the ball came to me, which it did.”
It will be interesting to see what role Ricks plays once the Eagles are at full strength in the secondary. Slay and James Bradberry are going to play every outside snap when they’re healthy and Bradley Roby will likely play every snap in the slot when he’s healthy.
But whatever happens, Ricks is one of a number of impressive young defensive backs who could be a big part of the future of the Eagles’ secondary. Josh Jobe is 25, Reed Blankenship 24, Sydney Brown and Mekhi Garner 23, Ricks just turned 22 a few weeks ago and Kelee Ringo is 21.
Of that group, Jobe, Blankenship, Garner and Ricks are all undrafted.
Ricks has really impressed Slay with his professionalism and his veteran demeanor on the field.
“Just being competitive and just being calm,” he said. “Because big plays are going to happen on you. It’s just what we play, this position, and the way he bounces back, that’s what really builds a true corner’s character.
“When he gives up plays, he doesn’t get down. He keeps going. That’s really what makes him who he is.”