Rookie Diary With Eli Ricks
If not for a pass deflection in the box score – his second of the season – or the Monday morning snap percentage tracker, a casual observer would’ve had trouble quantifying Eagles cornerback Eli Ricks’ involvement in last Sunday’s 37-34 overtime win over the Buffalo Bills.
The rookie continued to sub in for third-down scenarios, along with first-year safety Sydney Brown, as coordinator Sean Desai continued to shuffle his personnel groupings to counter a dangerous Bills passing game.
In total, Ricks and Brown logged 19 and 12 snaps, respectively. But their steady roles amid a veteran secondary speaks to the trust in which Desai has in the first-year defensive backs.
It also underscored Desai’s creativity, confidence, and willingness to leave no stone unturned in personnel deployment.
Ricks and Brown figure to continue their third-down roles Sunday against a San Francisco 49ers team boasting playmakers notorious for stretching defenses thin.
Leaning on a healthy rotation, and extra defensive backs, would presumably be the most logical course of action.
Brown, in particular, could undertake a more prominent role as the team looks to compensate for the loss of linebacker Zach Cunningham to a hamstring injury.
As for Ricks, the soft-spoken, laid-back California native continues to alternate between his natural position at perimeter corner and nickel, a role he’s played almost exclusively this season.
He’s continuing to take his assignments in stride – business as usual for the 22-year-old, despite the playoff-like atmosphere that awaits.
As part of an Inside The Birds Rookie Diary series, I’ll be checking in with Ricks throughout the season, learning more about the first-year corner and chronicling his rookie campaign.
On Friday, I stopped by Ricks’ locker after practice to discuss – among various topics – navigating the damp, bone-chilling elements, special teams progression, his relationship with defensive coordinator Sean Desai, and this week’s matchup.
Andrew: Was the Buffalo game one of the craziest games you’ve been a part of?
Eli:”Definitely. We’ve had a lot of crazy games this year, not gonna lie, but that was probably one of the crazier ones.”
Andrew: Sunday’s forecast calls for more rain. How do you go about navigating the elements?
Eli: “Mentally, I’m kind of still preparing as if we’re gonna be jarred from a DB standpoint. But obviously, I know I’m gonna have to tackle a lot more. A lot more runs, 21 personnel. More tight ends we’ll be seeing and stuff like that. And physically, really just the rain gloves. I try not to – I did the Kansas City game – but I try not to get too warm so I could just be in the element. Really nothing too different.”
Andrew: Have you gotten used to this Philly weather yet?
Eli: “No! No. I’m not used to it. But I’ve been putting on more clothes, so that’s one thing I will say. But I’m definitely not used to it.”
Andrew: You were credited with a PBU on a pass that hit your leg. Walk me through that one.
Eli: “They kind of ran a rub route, a pick route, and then me and JB [James Bradberry] switched off. And when they ran the pick route, I got picked, so I picked up my new man and then was chasing him. I think the pressure helped that out a lot, to make the throw like that, thankfully. That’s really all that happened … was me trying to get back to my man and then he threw the ball, I guess, earlier than he would’ve ’cause of the pressure.”
Andrew: The special teams units have delivered all season long, but the details and execution were particularly noticeable the past two weeks. As someone who takes great pride in this area, could you talk about your role?
Eli: “Yeah. I got a unique role on special teams. On punt return, my job is really just to help out [Britain] Covey. He kind of tells me where he wants me to look or who he wants me to block. And then on the other special teams, I think honestly, I could probably be more physical. I got moved to a new position on kickoff, so we’ll see how that looks this week, so I could make more plays. But I would probably say my most vital role is that MVM position right now, on punt return.”
Andrew: You’ve mentioned working on run fits before. I’d think third phase reps would help in that regard?
Eli: “I guess you could say kickoff, maybe, when I’m working at safety. You could definitely say that. But it’s different a little bit, ’cause everybody’s already set, compared to seeing somebody crack down or something like that. But you can always work on your tackling on special teams. So, that’s good.”
Andrew: Sean Desai finds roles for every player, catering to strengths and keeping defenses honest. That’s not all that common. Have you ever had a coordinator like that?
Eli: “Honestly, no. I mean, I’ve only been in college. Guys kinda know how college is … it’s really the first team and then everybody else, unless it’s receivers. But this is the first time I’ve really seen a coach involving everybody, making certain roles for people. I think it’s really good because it keeps everybody involved, everybody eager to learn, wanting to know something. So, I definitely think that’s good. But I would say no, he’s the first one that I’ve seen kinda incorporate everybody like this. Which is a good thing.”
Andrew: Describe your relationship with Coach Desai since you’ve etched out a recurring role.
Eli: “He’s a real cool coach, honestly. Real humble guy, down to Earth. He always comes up and talks to me before practice and asks me what I think of the third-down game plan and stuff like that. Easy to talk to and communicate with. We could always tell him when we don’t like something or when we think we need something else. He’s always open to it. So, that’s proably the best thing about him.”
Andrew: Eleven games into your career, what does it mean to you to have Desai’s trust?
Eli: “Eleven games in sounds crazy. But to have his trust is really big. That’s the first thing I wanted to do since I’ve gotten here back in May. Just really wanted to show that I’m a trustworthy player. I’m still working on that, I feel like I could make the trust even better – and that’s only by making more plays. But I feel like with the role I’ve had, I’ve done all right this season.”
Andrew: You weren’t here last year but I’m sure you’re aware of the one-sided chatter coming from San Francisco. As a young player, how do you go about removing yourself from all that and staying focused?
Eli: “We definitely have seen it … I guess you could say the chatter and stuff like that. But, I mean, that’s what they would want us to do, react to that on the field. Extra-curricular stuff and all that. But we’re really just gonna go out and try to make a game that’s not even close. That’s the only way we can really prove that talk is nothing. So, that’s really our only thing … our execution plan, when we hear stuff like that. We’re not even gonna retaliate; we’re only gonna do that on the field.”
Andrew: The Niners boast a ton of firepower. Who do you view as the engine to their success?
Eli: “Christian McCaffrey and (left tackle) Trent Williams. I really would say the offense goes around those two. If you want another skill player, I would honestly say – based off of this year – Brandon Aiyuk. I would probably say those two, Christian McCaffrey and 11 (Aiyuk).”
Andrew: Given your frame, is there any chance we see you in coverage against TE George Kittle?
Eli: “Don’t think so, honestly. I mean, it could definitely happen, and I’ll be ready for it … but Kevin (Byard) is a great safety, and we think he’s made for these type of matchups. He guarded [Travis] Kelce, which is another great tight end in this league, so we think he can do the same with Kittle.”
Andrew: What did the practice week look like for you?
Eli: “Same as always, just bouncing around back-and-forth between corner and nickel. [Thursday] was third-down day, so I was in a lot more at practice. Basically, my day out of the week. And [Friday] was a shorter day. But doing the same thing, helping out JB and [Darius] Slay when they need legs at corner and then being out there when my role is called at nickel.”
Andrew: What’s one goal you’re aiming to achieve this week?
Eli: “Like I said earlier, being more physical on special teams. I think that’s something I could do.”
– Andrew DiCecco (@AndrewDiCecco) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.