Josh Sweat, once one of the top high school football prospects in the country, acknowledges that he did not have the college career he envisioned.
“I don’t think I had the college career I wanted at all, but it doesn’t really matter anymore. I’m here. I feel like I’m in a much better place as far as using my abilities the way they should be used,” Sweat said Friday, after the first workout of the Eagles’ weekend rookie minicamp.
In the run-up to the NFL draft, which would see Sweat taken by the Eagles in the fourth round, 130th overall, there was much talk of the devastating knee injury Sweat suffered his senior year in high school, how he wasn’t able to practice every day at Florida State, and underwent a minor meniscus procedure in 2016. NFL.com reported that some teams took Sweat off their draft boards over concerns about his left knee.
“Without the knee injury, he’s a first-round pick,” said ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr., who complimented the Eagles for 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.
They weren’t, and he didn’t. Sweat played 35 games in three seasons at FSU, and his 4.53 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine was the fastest among defensive ends. His 39.5-inch vertical leap also led the field. The knee might not hold up as long as one that hasn’t had all three major ligaments repaired, but it seems to be working fine for now. After the Eagles made the selection, Howie Roseman spoke of the team’s faith in team orthopedic surgeon Dr. Peter DeLuca, who concluded that Sweat was “ready to go,” Roseman said.
Sweat’s take is that his lack of extraordinary production for the Seminoles had a lot to do with the 4-2-5 defense implemented by since-departed coach Jimbo Fisher, in which Sweat typically played a hybrid linebacker/defensive end position called the “Buck.” Sweat often would line up square with the offensive tackle, then wait for the tackle to move before coming out of his stance. He was faulted for not getting off the ball quicker in some scouting reports.
“If [the tackle] was late, I was late. I never looked at the ball,” Sweat said. “It had nothing to do with my reaction time or anything like that. It’s a lot different here. … I thought it was a lot more fun [Friday]. I got to play the edge. It’s always pass first, then you play the run. It’s so much better. I can gain ground. … I don’t have to really convert [to pass-rush mode] because I’m already on my way to the quarterback.”
At Florida State, “it was hard on the pass; you had to start in the B-gap and then loop all the way out,” said Sweat, who nonetheless managed 5.5 sacks last season, 14.5 over three years.
Sweat’s father, William Washington, said he also feels too much has been made of the knee injury. “It was four years ago,” Washington said. He said it would be impossible to post the combine results Sweat posted on a wonky knee. Before springing up on the vertical leap, “he squatted all the way down to the ground. He did that to show there’s nothing wrong with the knee,” Washington said.
Sweat, listed at 6-5, 251, said he weighed 248 Friday. He knows he needs to add some lower-body mass. He said constantly doing battle inside with bigger offensive linemen at FSU had more to do with the practices he sat out than anything that was wrong with his knee.
“Coach Fisher, because I played that ‘four technique,’ it was a lot different, huge dudes in there, so every now and then, he’d say, ‘Take a day,’ just to get me to Saturday. It wasn’t because of the knee.”
One vestige of Sweat’s Florida State “Buck” setup is that he is most comfortable in a four-point stance, with both hands on the ground. This is generally considered less effective on the outside, where hand placement in warding off a block is so important — it ought to be a benefit to have a hand already at waist level.
“I’ll still play it here, all four down,” Sweat said. “There’s just something weird about having one hand up. I don’t know, I don’t feel as explosive.”
Washington said that as frustrating as it was waiting until the third day of the draft, going to the defending Super Bowl champions, who have Pro Bowl veterans in place and can give Sweat time to develop, “ended up being better than we could have asked for.”
Washington said Eagles fans should know that his son, who recently turned 21, is a reluctant celebrity, initially bewildered by autograph requests at Florida State — he asked his father, “What do they want my autograph for?” Also, that he builds computers in his spare time, and won’t be “spending money on the cars and the clubs.”
“He’s a fierce competitor,” Washington said. “But a nice guy.”