Eagles' suspended Johnson faces 'test'

DAVID MAIALETT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Lane Johnson walks out to the field during Eagles training camp this week.
DAVID MAIALETT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Lane Johnson walks out to the field during Eagles training camp this week.
Posted: August 01, 2014

THE SEALED, plastic drug-testing cup arrived at his NovaCare locker the first day of organized team activities in April, the letter from the NFL in mid-May. The story burst into the headlines June 30, and Lane Johnson's four-game suspension became final July 23, after his appeal was denied.

The reality, though, is just starting to sink in now.

"It's tough mentally," Johnson said yesterday.

Johnson, the fourth overall pick in the 2013 draft, has spent the first four 2014 training-camp sessions as the second-team right tackle, because Eagles coach Chip Kelly wants to get sub Allen Barbre ready to play those first four games, and probably more. It seems unlikely that Johnson, after sitting out the first month of the season, unable to practice, attend meetings or even enter the team practice facility, is going to be ready to start in Week 5, though that remains his goal.

What Johnson and the Eagles hoped would be a breakthrough year for a gifted but raw athlete now looks like a struggle. Johnson, 6-6, 317, said yesterday he still hasn't finalized a plan for those four weeks, where he'll be working out, what he'll do with himself when he isn't working out. Johnson said though he will not be allowed to communicate with coaches while he is suspended, he can talk with teammates. (Tutorials in Jason Kelce's living room, perhaps?)

"It's going to be a test," said Johnson, who estimated he will have a plan lined up by the third preseason game. "Get my own set of pads and try to get out there on the field somewhere and get some work in with somebody."

Johnson declined again yesterday to identify what he has said was a prescription drug he took without remembering to check with the Eagles to see if it was approved. "It would be embarrassing," he said.

Asked how Johnson is adjusting to his new situation, Kelly said yesterday: "He's doing a really good job. I think one of the byproducts is, it's probably beneficial he's not with [veteran right guard] Todd [Herremans] all the time, because Todd, being the older guy, a lot of times makes all the calls on the right side. Lane's forced to kind of be a little bit more vocal."

Johnson said he agreed with the coach; lined up next to Dennis Kelly on the second team, instead of Herremans, "I have to get the signal, I'm the one that's initiating the calls," Johnson said. "I have a lot more responsibility . . . try to make the best of it."

"Lane's getting a lot of work in individuals and with the twos right now," Kelce, the center, said yesterday. "We've had enough work with Lane [that it won't be a problem bringing him back.] Right now, we're trying to focus in on getting reps with Allen Barbre . . . For me, there's really not a big difference at all. The biggest difference is probably with Todd and the tight ends, understanding who they're combination-blocking with."

Barbre, the 30-year-old journeyman who will make his first Eagles start in the opener against Jacksonville, has an idea of what Johnson is going through. Barbre's four-game PED suspension in May of 2012 led to his release by the Seattle Seahawks, the team that has had seven NFL banned substance suspensions since 2011. No team picked up Barbre, also a former Packer and Dolphin, until he signed with the Eagles at that season's end.

"I didn't get to come back" from suspension, Barbre said this week. "I worked out. I was ready to go. I never got an opportunity . . . that suspension maybe scared some people away."

Johnson and Barbre have spoken about their common bond.

"Me and Al are pretty good friends. He just said to stay focused, it's tough there in the beginning, but once you realize what you're going to do [during the suspension], make the best of it and go from there," Johnson said. "I'm trying to get as many reps as I can before I leave."

Kelly noted recently that one of the benefits of his uptempo practices is that there are more reps to go around, more work for the subs than most teams give them.

Barbre said he told Johnson, "don't listen to what anybody says. You take care of you. You control your future. Keep your head straight."

For Barbre, 6-4, 310, the right side is relatively new. He has played mainly on the left; his longest stint as an Eagle came when he worked most of the Nov. 10 Green Bay game for injured left tackle Jason Peters. That was especially pleasing, since Barbre was a fourth-round pick of the Packers in 2007 and played in 25 games for them over the next three seasons, starting seven.

"Lots of reps and lots of work" will get him comfortable on the right side, Barbre said.

The Eagles really seem to like Barbre - they signed him to a 3-year contract extension a few months ago. But he came to them in 2013 having played in only seven games since 2010.

"I got hurt there a few years. It took me a little while to come back from that, get back into my game and how I play . . . I like to have some power, be a little physical, as opposed to being too finesse. I'm not really into that kind of game," he said.

If anyone else along the line goes down before Johnson returns, the Eagles might really have to scramble. Their next-most-experienced o-lineman is Kelly, a fifth-round pick in 2012 who was thrown into 10 games as a starter that year, because of injuries, as the Eagles went 4-12.


On Twitter: @LesBowen

Blog: ph.ly/Eagletarian

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