As the Philadelphia Eagles prepare to open training camp on July 25, we examine whether the team is better or worse than last season at each position. We continue with the offensive line.
Lane Johnson experienced his share of Welcome to the NFL moments during his rookie year. He was more or less a turnstile in pass protection over the first eight weeks of the season, and was dragging right guard Todd Herremans down with him.
Right about the season’s midway point, though, something clicked for Johnson. He cleaned up his game to the point where by the end of the year, it was easy to forget the Eagles even had a rookie starting at right tackle.
Johnson has come a long way in a short amount of time in pass pro, which shouldn't be too surprising. In college, he played all over the field, from quarterback to tight end to defensive lineman, and finally, offensive line, so he understands the game from a number of perspectives. Johnson must be a fast learner, too, because he only played two seasons at tackle for Oklahoma before being selected No. 4 overall in the 2013 draft.
Johnson was a plus-run blocker pretty much from the beginning as well, helping pave the way for LeSean McCoy’s rushing title. That was Year 1 in the league. We’re anticipating much more to come from Johnson as his development continues.
Lane Johnson Reportedly Being Suspended for Four Games
While this news still has yet to be confirmed by either the Eagles or the league office, Paul Domowitch for the Daily News reported a few weeks back that Johnson could be facing a four-game suspension for using performance enhancing drugs. Let’s examine this from two different angles.
First, the obvious: assuming Domo’s report proves true, losing Johnson for four games is a blow. Allen Barbre is expected to fill in while Johnson is out, and although the journeyman veteran performed well enough in relief appearances last season to receive a three-year extension in June, he represents a clear step-down at right tackle.
The Eagles can probably get by with Barbre for four games. It’s not the end of the world. McCoy’s yards per carry might dip slightly. Nick Foles better get the ball out of his hand a bit quicker. The offense can adjust, though.
Second, and perhaps more concerning, is to what degree have PEDs contributed to Johnson’s success? Is he going to lose an edge on the field if he stops whatever he tested positive for?
It’s impossible to speculate. PEDs aren’t automatically “steroids,” they’re any banned substances, some of which are found in over-the-counter supplements. Without knowing what Johnson took, it’s all a guessing. Again, a positive test and suspension are not even confirmed as of this writing.
The only thing we truly know for certain is if a suspension is ultimately handed down, the Eagles won’t get 16 starts from all five of their offensive linemen again in 2014.
Jason Peters and Evan Mathis were voted first-team All-Pros in ’13. There is little indication their play is slipping. However, there is reason to be slightly concerned about the left side of the offensive line going forward, because both players are well into their 30s.
For that matter, so is Herremans, who already exhibited signs of struggling last year. To be fair, he had built-in excuses like undergoing a position change for the second time in as many years, or playing alongside a rookie. Plus, Herremans actually improved over the second half of last season as Johnson’s play at right tackle did, so it’s not as if all of his ability simply eroded.
That being said, the decline in players in their 30s can be swift and unexpected. Herremans turns 32 this season, Peters and Mathis will be 33. These guys aren’t just now crossing the threshold. They’re all exiting their prime years.
It’s not just a dip in performance you have to watch out for, either. As their bodies start breaking down, injuries become more likely as well.
Are the plights of these aging players so worrisome that it could sink the Eagles? Probably not, although you never can tell. Even if their performances begin to slip by small margins, it could be enough to drop Peters and Mathis from elite to merely good, or Herremans from serviceable to replacement-level. It’s a situation to monitor at the very least.
Heading into just his fourth NFL season, it’s entirely possible Jason Kelce is still a player on the upswing. The question is how much better could he possibly be?
No, Kelce wasn’t named to the All-Pro team like a pair of his teammates. He wasn’t even an alternate for the Pro Bowl. As long as Kelce continues on his current path, though, he’ll be getting showered with accolades soon enough.
Some would suggest Kelce is already one of the premier players at his position. According to metrics site Pro Football Focus, Kelce graded out better overall than any other center in the NFL in ’13.
Kelce is a perfect fit for Philadelphia’s scheme, and it showed last season. Where he should rank compared to his peers is up for some debate, but he’s very, very good, and at 26 years old, Kelce should stay that way for a long time to come.
Johnson’s looming suspension plus the fact that three starters in their 30s—four if you count Johnson’s likely replacement—equals one scary situation. The Eagles are possibly one injury away from their offensive line devolving into a bit of a mess.
There simply is no established depth or even much pedigree on the bench. Aside from Barbre, the only player who’s seen extensive action at the NFL level is 2012 fifth-rounder Dennis Kelly, and he was left on the inactive list for all 16 games last season after undergoing back surgery over the summer.
Everywhere you look, Philadelphia’s bench is untested. There are four undrafted rookies trying to make the team. Two more players battling for jobs—Matt Tobin and Michael Bamiro—have never played a down in the NFL. “Veterans” Julian Vandervelde, David Molk and Andrew Gardner have lined up for a total of 74 offensive snaps between them.
Granted, offensive-line depth is a question mark for most teams around the league. However, there are reasons to believe the Eagles may need to dip into their reserves in 2014, and while it’s not necessarily for lack of talent, the result of that would be anybody’s guess.
BETTER OR WORSE?
Worse. Even if the winds change on the Johnson front, and it turns out he’s not suspended, there is reason to believe the unit as a whole will take a step back. With three starters in their 30s, somebody is likely to decline—not to mention the odds of five players making all 16 games again can’t be very good. If the Eagles have to go deep into their bench, who knows what the result will be. Overall, the unit is solid as long as everybody stays healthy, but ultimately may not be as strong as they were by the end of last season.