Dennis Kelly freely admits it.
When the first Eagles depth chart came out, and his name ranked above Lane Johnson at right tackle, it caught him by surprise. He hadn’t expected to be summoned to run with the starters.
“No, to be honest,” the second-year tackle said Monday after practice. “Lane is a good player. They’re bringing him along and I’m just trying to take advantage of the opportunity I have.”
Chip Kelly has delivered so far on his promise of open competition at quarterback and several other positions. Nobody had asked him about his vision for right tackle after the Eagles picked Johnson fourth overall in April’s draft. It seemed obvious.
First-round picks, especially prospects taken in the top five, are usually given the chance to fail before succeed. Chip Kelly, for the moment, doesn’t appear to be handing out starting jobs to anyone.
Johnson, the former Oklahoma tackle whose unique athleticism makes him custom tailored for the team’s warp-speed offense, hardly seemed fazed or perplexed about the depth chart or even concerned about roster jockeying before the pads come out.
“I know he’s there, but I really don’t care right now,” said Johnson. “We’ll see what happens when training camp comes.”
Dennis Kelly’s perspective on the competition is equal parts pragmatic and idealistic. In one sentence, he anticipates the day when Johnson naturally assumes his position atop the right tackle totem pole in practice. In another, he doesn’t dismiss the suggestion that he can ultimately edge Johnson for the job.
“It’s one of those things where we drafted Lane at four,” Dennis Kelly said. “It’s kind of hard not to play him.”
But later, when asked if the job is his to lose, Kelly said, “Yeah, why wouldn’t I look at it that way? Like I said before, I’ve just got to do my best and give them a reason to keep me on the field.”
The Eagles picked Kelly out of Purdue in the fifth round last year, not knowing that he would make 10 starts as a rookie after injuries reduced their offensive line to a collection of backups and street free-agent signings. Left guard Evan Mathis was the only offensive lineman to start all 16 games last year.
The towering Kelly -- at 6-foot-8, 321 pounds, he’s actually an inch taller and about 15 pounds heavier than Johnson -- debuted at guard, where he made three starts in place of an injured Danny Watkins, and played very much like a longtime tackle trying out guard for the first time.
He started the last seven games at tackle for Herremans, who had suffered season-ending foot and ankle injuries on Nov. 5. Kelly performed better at tackle but would have taken a backseat to Herremans at right tackle this season if the team hadn’t drafted Johnson and moved Herremans back to guard.
Kelly has practiced exclusively at tackle this offseason. He had spent much of the winter getting his body in the right shape to practice at the high tempo of Chip Kelly’s practices.
“I tried to slim down a little,” he said. “I’m still probably about the same weight, but it’s better weight. From a cardio aspect, I probably started a little bit early just to make sure I wasn’t taken aback and keeling over on the first day.”
The Eagles have battled instability at right tackle since the end of the 2008 season, when they said goodbye to veteran Jon Runyan and tried to replace him with right guard Shawn Andrews.
Runyan, the ironman of the team, had started all 16 games for his nine seasons with the Eagles and 17 more playoff games, frequently playing though bruises, sprains and even a broken tailbone. He was the haggard, grizzled face of a blue-collar offensive line that served as the often overlooked foundation of Andy Reid’s perennial playoff teams.
Since Runyan’s departure, four different linemen have started the past 64 games at right tackle. Andrews started none of them. He underwent two back surgeries before the 2009 season and never started another game for the Eagles. Winston Justice and King Dunlap have come and gone and Herremans has returned to guard.
The Eagles were clearly seeking a cornerstone when they stayed at No. 4 last month and drafted Johnson, a talented prospect viewed as years away from his fullest potential. Eventually, Johnson will see some first-team reps.
“He’ll get a shot,” Dennis Kelly said, “and so we’ll see.”
Kelly added Johnson hasn’t shown that he’s having trouble picking up the new scheme or adapting to this level.
“He’s good. He’s quick. Very explosive,” he said. “He’s picking it up pretty quickly, which is really impressive. There’s no arrogance or anything like that.”
Johnson hasn’t read too deeply into the second-team reps. He’s still just getting his feet wet with new surroundings and is neither encouraged nor discouraged by his placement on the depth chart.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “I just came in and tried to learn the playbook as much as I can. Last week all the rookies were trying to get used to the scheme and what to expect.
“Now coming [into] this week I feel a lot more comfortable because we’ve been through a week. We know what to expect in practice and things are starting to click out there on the field. You’re not thinking as much, so it’s going good.”
Dennis Kelly freely admits it.