High hopes for Lane Johnson at start of Eagles career

Eagles rookie Lane Johnson talks to the media. ( MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ). May 10, 2013.
Eagles rookie Lane Johnson talks to the media. ( MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ). May 10, 2013.
Posted: May 11, 2013

There will be expectations heaped on the shoulders of Lane Johnson, but they may come earlier than normal, even for a top-five draft pick, because of the position he plays.

From 2006 to 2012, seven tackles were taken in the first five draft picks, and all six started in the season opener. The Eagles will most certainly want Johnson to start right away. But can he, considering how little he played on the offensive line in college?

Asked after his first practice as an Eagle if he felt that he needed to start from Day 1, Johnson said Friday: "I just feel I have to kind of work every day and do my best, and I think if I do that then good things will happen."

Wisely, the Eagles' top pick avoided placing undo pressure on himself. But the Eagles did not draft Johnson fourth overall - after tackles Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel went first and second - to sit and watch. They need help on the line.

Tackles Jason Peters and Todd Herremans and center Jason Kelce are returning from serious injuries. Guard Evan Mathis will likely sit out the rest of the spring after ankle surgery, and guard Danny Watkins is close to being a certified first-round bust.

Johnson's sliding right into the starting lineup would ease the burden on the line. Herremans could move back to guard, and Watkins wouldn't be forced into the starting lineup. But it could be too much to ask, especially if the 23-year-old is charged with shielding quarterback Michael Vick's blind side.

"I've thought about it," Johnson said of protecting Vick. "But I'm just kind of going with the flow right now. You can't get too far ahead of yourself, because if you do you get caught up and can't really control it."

Johnson said he played primarily at right tackle during the first day of rookie minicamp. But will he remain there and play with the first team when the full squad convenes for the first day of organized team activities on Monday?

It is likely coach Chip Kelly and offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland will throw Johnson into the fire immediately. The 6-foot-7, 303-pound Johnson said he would know quickly if he can compete at this level, even if they're practicing without pads and in shorts.

"Minicamp is minicamp," he said. "A bunch of people are here for tryouts. But I'm ready for Monday, and just get these next two days over with and then get to meet some veterans and talk to them and learn as much as I can."

Johnson played quarterback in high school and junior college. He switched to tight end and then defensive end when he transferred to Oklahoma. His size and the fact that he couldn't keep the weight off made him a candidate for the offensive line, and when injuries plagued the Sooners, Johnson was moved to tackle before his junior season.

He improved over the course of two seasons but admits that he was not a great technical blocker and often got away with mistakes because of his athleticism. Johnson said he knows he can't cheat in the NFL.

"You just have to be more refined. You're going against the best of the best now," he said. "You're not going against any scrubs anymore, so you have to be perfect, or you're going to be beat."

Of the seven top-five tackles taken before 2013, four became Pro Bowlers - D'Brickashaw Ferguson (2006 first-round pick), Joe Thomas (2007), Jake Long (2008), and Trent Williams (2010). Levi Brown (2007) became a regular, and Jason Smith (2009) was a bust. Matt Kalil (2012) appears to have a bright future.

Ready or not, they started from the get-go. But they had more experience than Johnson. He may have no choice. He has four months to figure it out.


Contact Jeff McLane at jmclane@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_McLane.

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