Bryce Brown (left) was drafted in the seventh round in 2012, and Damaris Johnson was signed as an undrafted free agent. (USA Today Images)
They’re both explosive, electrifying playmakers. Bryce Brown is strong and powerful, Damaris Johnson speedy and elusive.
The Eagles stole both of them last year after neither played college football in 2011. They signed Johnson as an undrafted free agent and drafted Brown in the seventh round.
Both had auspicious rookie years, record-setting years even, and both have had plenty of eye-popping moments this preseason.
Brown last year became the youngest player in NFL history with consecutive games of 165 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
Johnson last year became the youngest undrafted player in NFL history with a punt return of 98 yards or longer.
With both, you just wonder: Can you trust 'em?
Brown struggled as a rookie with fumbles, committing four on just 115 carries. Even though he ranked 34th in the NFL in rushing attempts, he was seventh among tailbacks in fumbles.
Johnson struggled a year ago with his decision making, repeatedly returning kickoffs from deep in the end zone and too often juking around to try and bust a huge run instead of just catching the ball and taking off for positive yards.
Saturday night in Jacksonville, we once again saw the best and worst of Johnson and Brown.
Johnson had a 37-yard punt return and 61-yard kick return but also tried to return a kickoff four yards deep in the end zone and made it only to the 10, and he also fumbled deep in Eagles territory.
Brown ran 11 times for 92 yards but fumbled as he was about to dive into the end zone, costing the Eagles a TD.
Two tremendous talents. Two big question marks.
“You hope those guys learn, and you have a situation where you can talk to them about making great decisions,” head coach Chip Kelly said. “We talk about ball security all the time. We do all security drills every day, and we'll continue to do that. But it's a fundamental thing. Once the season starts, we can't lose sight of it. It's integral in what we do.
“The turnover and takeaway battle is huge in this game. You can't afford to give possessions away.”
Despite struggling much of last year, Johnson finished second in the NFC at 11.2 yards per punt return. So far this preseason, he’s averaging 21.3 yards on punt returns and 27.2 on kick returns. Good stuff, for the most part.
“I don’t think I have to hold myself back, just there are points in the game where you have to be smart,” Johnson said.
“There are times when the offense has momentum, and you can just take a knee in the end zone and we can get the ball on the 20, and there are times when the team needs a spark, you can go out there and try to make a play.”
Johnson’s decision making was a big issue last year, but he seemed to make progress as the season went on.
It’s a tricky thing for a young kid. When do you try to make a big play? And when do you just cut your losses and avoid risk?
“That’s something you just have to balance out,” Johnson said. “You always want to make a big play, but my coach (Dave Fipp), he gives me the leeway where if I’m five yards deep in the end zone I still can take it out. I can read the nose of the ball, and if he doesn’t get a high kick, if it’s a line drive, I can take it out even if I’m five yards deep in the end zone.
“Last year, I was out there just trying to get my hands on the ball and just trying to make big plays. Now, I’m out there thinking about every aspect of the game. I’m not trying to make a big play every time I touch the ball, even though it looks like it. I’m just trying to take what the other team gives me.”
Brown’s problems are a little simpler than Johnson’s.
It’s not really decision making as much as just protecting the football. His four fumbles last year were the most by an Eagles running back who had fewer than 150 carries in 22 years, and his fumble in Jacksonville Saturday night cost the Eagles a touchdown.
“I spend a lot of time in traffic, that's the main thing I'm really putting my emphasis on, really keeping the ball in terms of traffic,” he said. “As far as getting out in the open, I kind of tend to run how I run. But I'm really trying to put more emphasis when I'm in between tackles, things like that.”
Brown, whose 4.9 average last year was fifth-best in the NFL among backs with 100 or more carries, shrugged off his fumble on Saturday night, since it was really a different sort of play than the ones that killed him last year.
He didn’t lose the ball because he was carrying it carelessly, he lost it when safety Dwight Lowery got his helmet on the football as Brown was lunging for the end zone.
"Like everybody says, they'll kill you,” Brown said. “And that's what we're trying to [not] do. This team has turned the ball over a lot in the past and we're trying to honestly turn that around because if we put a lot of points up there, it's easy. We know that. We’ve just got to get better at it.”