Eagles give draft-snub Johnson his big break

Eagles give draft-snub Johnson his big break
December 19, 2013, 10:45 am
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Undrafted rookie safety Keelan Johnson latched onto the Eagles' practice squad after being cut by the Dolphins in training camp. (AP)

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For 15 weeks he’s waited patiently for a chance to start proving people wrong.

That chance finally comes Sunday.

Keelan Johnson, a rookie safety out of Arizona State, is the newest Philadelphia Eagle. With safeties Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson both hobbled, he was promoted from the practice squad to the active roster Wednesday, and he’s likely to make his NFL debut Sunday when the Eagles face the Bears at the Linc.

“The frustrating part, as an athlete, you want to be out there and you want to play,” Johnson said. “I always felt like I was good enough to play. I feel like I could have been a drafted player. I feel like I had a good season [last year] and all that stuff.

“It was just frustrating sitting on the sideline, watching these guys playing the sport I love, and I’m not out there with them.

“It’s been a long journey. I’m still at the point where I’m not even halfway to where I want to be. It was really hard to sit there and see these guys play.”

Life on the practice squad isn’t bad, though. Guys like Johnson earn $5,500 a week to run scout team, learn from the veterans and hope for a chance.

Johnson’s promotion this week earned him a raise to the NFL rookie minimum of $405,000 per year, which pro-rates to $23,823 per week for the next couple weeks.

“I looked at it as a learning opportunity,” Johnson said of his 3½ months on the practice squad. “I learned from DeMeco [Ryans], Nate Allen, those guys about the defense.

“I sharpened my skills, my knowledge of the game and how to study and prepare for the game as a professional. That’s kind of how I look at it as a positive.”

Johnson was a first-team all-Pac 12 safety last year for Arizona State when he had five interceptions, 11th-most in NCAA Division-I.

But he went undrafted in April, landing first with the Dolphins in training camp and then on the Eagles’ practice squad, where he’s spent the entire season.

“The draft is crazy,” Johnson said. “Sometimes it doesn’t go how you plan or how you predict. I’m just fortunate the Eagles gave me another opportunity after the Dolphins released me.”

Johnson is a pretty big guy, standing 5-foot-11, 210 pounds. He’ll be on a couple special teams units Sunday and will serve as an emergency safety at a position where everybody is either hobbled (Coleman, Anderson), coming back from an injury (Earl Wolff) or struggling badly (Patrick Chung).

“I feel prepared,” Johnson said. “I’m hungry and eager to get out there. I’m passionate when I play this game. I think everything else will just take care of itself.”

A number of practice squad guys over the years have gone on to long, productive careers, either with the Eagles or elsewhere, a list that includes Jamaal Jackson, Cedric Thornton, Clinton Hart, Stanley Havili, A.Q. Shipley, Damien Robinson, Chad Hall, Kyle Arrington, James Allen and Danny Amendola.

Eagles head coach Chip Kelly said he’s been impressed by Johnson in practice, even though scout team D-backs have to let receivers catch the ball and don’t hit.

“Just solid,” Kelly said. “Very steady every single day. Really consistent in what he's done out there. Our guys, we practice at a really good tempo. Those guys on the practice squad, the Keelans, the Travis Longs, the Will Murphys, the Brandon Bairs, those guys have been outstanding all season long.

“Obviously, if you have to bring a guy up we'd rather bring a guy up from the practice squad because he's been here. He understands our system. It's not trying to get a guy on a Tuesday, trying to tell them what our calls are, what the fits are.

“We tell all our practice players to prepare like you're going to play because when the opportunity comes, it can't be, ‘Oh, God, I didn't know this was going to happen and I'm not prepared for it.’ He's a big kid, physical kid. See what we can do.”