In a sense, L.J. Fort’s NFL journey bears some resemblance to his upbringing. In the same manner that the 30-year-old veteran has bounced from city to city with respective teams since 2012, so did he as a child, getting accustomed to new bearings as the son of two parents who served in the Army and frequently moved to different military bases.
Now, one year after a fortuitous transaction, and as he prepares to make his return to Philadelphia to face the Eagles on Sunday, the Ravens linebacker has carved out a valuable niche in Baltimore.
Fort’s NFL debut was one that seemed to foreshadow a fruitful career, even though he entered as an undrafted rookie from Northern Iowa. He earned a spot on the Cleveland Browns' 53-man roster and started his first game because of several injuries, recording an interception and sack against the Eagles.
But he didn’t start another game for the rest of the season. For the next four years, Fort spent brief moments with several teams, only appearing in one game — a short-lived stint at fullback with the Seattle Seahawks (“I got a couple carries in college,” said Fort, an all-conference high school running back and linebacker in Waynesville, Missouri).
In 2016, he signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he spent the next three seasons. While he was relegated to a special teams role in the first two years, his role on defense expanded after linebacker Ryan Shazier’s career-ending spinal injury.
Fort played well when given more opportunities, and his patience was rewarded in the summer of 2019 when he signed a three-year, $5.5 million deal with the Eagles. With the financial security came the impression that he would be an integral part of the defense. But after four games and zero snaps played on defense, the Eagles cut Fort in a move primarily made to preserve a compensatory draft pick.
“I’ve always liked L.J., even in the short time that we had him here,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Wednesday on a conference call. "He came out of a very similar scheme when he was with Pittsburgh, and that’s when we signed him. He’s really settled into his role and his position at linebacker. …
“You see him on tape and he’s one of 11 defenders on tape that’s flying around and making plays and being disruptive. It’s always something that I knew, even when he was here fitting into our scheme as a four-down, three linebacker-scheme here, some of the same things that I saw. But there, in Baltimore, he’s definitely made an impact on that defense.”
The release “definitely shocked” Fort, but within hours, he and his agent received calls from several teams. He chose the Ravens, a team that had a previous interest in signing him and had a need for a sturdy veteran in the middle of a struggling defense.
It didn’t take long for Fort to leave his mark. During first play as a Raven, he made a tackle on the kickoff coverage team. The next week, he played a career-high 55 defensive snaps, helping to limit Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in a season-defining road win. Three weeks later, Fort signed a two-year extension through the 2021 season.
Fort praised the organization’s authenticity when asked why he agreed to an extension so quickly.
“Everything is real. The coaches are real about everything,” Fort said at the time. “You don’t have to wonder what’s going on, what people are thinking. That’s probably my favorite part about being here.”
Even as the team in April drafted two inside linebackers in Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison, Fort has maintained a consistent role. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said Thursday that Fort’s presence assisted in the learning process of Queen, the team’s first-round pick.
While Fort’s still contributing on special teams, he’s made his share of plays this season on the league’s best defense. His 18 tackles rank fifth on the team and he’s tied for the most fumble recoveries with two, including a 22-yard scoop-and-score against the Houston Texans in Week 2 complete with an acrobatic, full-extension dive into the end zone.
“I’ve been on like seven or eight teams, and it’s been a grind,” Fort said. “And when you’re on ‘P-squad’ [practice squad], and you’re getting cut multiple times, there’s always doubt in your mind if you’ll be able to find a home. But I just kept sticking to it, working hard, and fortunately, found a home here in Baltimore, and I’m loving it.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM
Line: Ravens by 7 1/2