Josh Sweat can impress the heck out of everybody and still not get a lot of playing time this season.
Sweat is the Eagles' fourth-round rookie defensive end from Florida State who would have gone higher if he hadn't spent his whole college career trying to assuage doubts about a complex, devastating knee injury he suffered in high school. On Thursday, onlookers were alarmed when Sweat went down amid a tangle of bodies, came up limping, and left practice, but a source with knowledge of the situation said Sweat suffered only a minor ankle sprain, nothing knee-related.
Sweat ran a 4.53-second 40 at the NFL scouting combine, fastest among defensive ends, and he says his knee is "100 percent." Overall, Sweat is having an excellent training camp. He has probably been the second-most-prominent rookie, behind top pick/tight end Dallas Goedert.
For Goedert, teammates such as starting tight end Zach Ertz are excitedly touting packages that might show off the rookie's talent. It isn't that way for Sweat, because as long, fast and smooth as he has looked at 6-foot-5, 251, the Eagles have a few defensive ends you might have heard of: Brandon Graham. Chris Long. Derek Barnett. Michael Bennett. Five Pro Bowl appearances in that group, five Super Bowl rings, and a second-team all-pro designation (Graham in 2016).
Sweat ought to earn a roster spot over Steven Means or Joe Ostman, but among the top four, who's giving up snaps to the rookie? Unless someone gets hurt, Sweat's best shot to play is when defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz moves Bennett or Graham inside on third and long. (Yes, Graham is injured right now, recovering from ankle surgery, but he expects to be ready for the regular season.)
Some defensive end reps could open up if the Eagles need to play Bennett or Graham inside more than just occasionally – defensive tackle Tim Jernigan's long-term status after disk surgery is a mystery, and Haloti Ngata is 34, coming off a biceps tendon tear.
For now, Sweat isn't sweating it. He's here to learn, and he can do that without getting a ton of regular-season snaps, but also, Sweat has confidence. He appreciates who's ahead of him, without being intimidated.
As Graham put it, "He don't take no stuff from nobody."
"I think about it, but it's not that big of a deal for me," Sweat said. "I know I have something to offer – speed, combination of strength and length, and all that. I know I have value to the team. I'll find work.
"I'm learning a lot from [the other D-ends]. That's the biggest thing for me this year, learning. And obviously, I really think I'm going to play a lot, anyway, so I'm not worried about being a starter. … I know I can help the team this year. But I'm not worrying about who's ahead of me, I'm just going."
Long, an 11-year veteran, said he is impressed with Sweat, who inherited Vinny Curry's old No. 75 jersey after Curry left for Tampa Bay in free agency.
"He's just got great quick-twitch. Really good length that he can use already, with that long arm, using his speed and transitioning into power," Long said. "For somebody who's not very heavy, creating that momentum vertically helps him transition into power. He's a good kid, he likes to learn, asks a lot of questions."
For most of his college career, Sweat played in a system in which he was a sort of hybrid linebacker-lineman. He has said he wasn't supposed to start rushing the passer until the blocker in front of him moved, which is not the way they do it here. He said he has been watching film of his new teammates, trying to add variety to his speed-rush repertoire.
Graham is his favorite teacher, he said.
"I watch him probably more than anybody. He brings the speed and the size and the twitch, and I just watch it all," Sweat said. "He reminds me of myself; I'm just a little bit longer and taller. He does pretty much what I would see myself doing as a rusher."
>> READ MORE: Eagles practice observations
Graham isn't practicing right now, but he is watching.
"That boy is definitely a guy that's got talent. … He's got the mind-set you want," Graham said of Sweat. "He can bend. He's quick. I can see him being the future, for sure."
Left unsaid was that Sweat becoming "the future" could affect Graham, who doesn't have a contract past this season, at age 30. In fact, the logjam ahead of Sweat could clear up very quickly. Long is 33, Bennett turns 33 in November. Barnett, last year's first-round rookie, and Sweat could be the line's bookends as early as 2019.
A year ago, Barnett faced a situation similar to Sweat's, except Curry was here and Bennett wasn't. Barnett still got 41 percent of the regular-season defensive snaps, 40 percent in the playoffs. And he came up with the ball after Graham strip-sacked Tom Brady in the Super Bowl, which was kind of important.