Second-unit role with Eagles boosting Johnson's leadership skills

Posted: August 15, 2014

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - You seldom see the highest drafted of 90 players on an NFL training-camp roster practicing with the second string, though that has been the reality of this summer for Lane Johnson.

But the second-year right tackle, who will miss the first four games of the coming season after violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances, appears to be making the most of his time with the backup offensive line. Playing alongside other young linemen rather than directly next to 10-year veteran Todd Herremans has compelled Johnson to become more vocal on the field as he also continues to develop his technique.

By far the most heralded player on a reserve unit consisting of fellow second-year players in center David Molk and left guard Matt Tobin, a third-year pro in right guard Dennis Kelly and journeyman left tackle Andrew Gardner, Johnson is "sort of taking the reins," he noted, rather than relying on Herremans to offer directions.

Somewhat of a silver lining of a faulty situation, one might say.

"I feel like I can make all the calls," Johnson, last year's fourth overall draft pick, said yesterday after the second of three joint practices with the Patriots preceding tomorrow night's preseason game. "I don't really need all the help from Todd like I did last year. I just feel a lot more confident just knowing my job."

"I think it really has helped me in that light," concluded the 24-year-old Oklahoma product.

Come next month, Johnson, who started every game as a rookie and improved as the season wore on, will miss out on considerable practice reps, a circumstance that certainly won't abet his development. Once the season begins, Johnson won't be eligible to practice or allowed to work out in the NovaCare Complex until Sept. 29, the day after the Eagles' Week 4 game at San Francisco.

With that in mind, coach Chip Kelly was asked yesterday whether the Eagles planned to give Johnson any first-team reps before training camp ends. Kelly said the staff had not discussed it, explaining the need to ensure that Allen Barbre, who will start the first four games in Johnson's place, is ready come the Sept. 7 opener against the Jaguars.

The coach said Johnson's snaps with the second team have helped him grow as a player, particularly regarding the mental aspects of the game.

"I don't think, when he does come back, when he gets an opportunity to get into the lineup next to Todd, it's like he's going to forget what Todd looks like," he added. "They work closely every single day in practice. I think a little bit of that is overblown. The big thing for us is making sure we're getting ready for our first game against Jacksonville, and we've got to play four games without him, so we've got to get Allen as many reps as he can [get]."

Johnson has yet to finalize his plan for the 4 weeks he will miss but said he should next week know where he's set to spend the time training. Likely somewhere close to Philadelphia, he said.

The most challenging part once he returns, he said, will be making sure he's on the same page as the rest of the offensive linemen regarding schemes, some of which can change week to week, depending on the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent. Depending on Barbre's performances in the first four games, it's certainly plausible he could remain the starter through Week 5 or Week 6 while Johnson gets reacclimated.

Though with the second unit, Johnson still has been able throughout training camp to take turns in pass-rush drills blocking first-team defenders such as outside linebacker Connor Barwin. Also, he actually gets more reps in preseason games with the second team than he would with the starters. But once the season rolls around, he'll be basically on his own.

"I think Lane's been doing great," Herremans said. "I think he's been working a lot on his technique over the summer and in this training camp he seems to be getting more lift on his drive blocks. He seems a lot more in balance in his pass sets. I think that he's really taken advantage of the time that he has right now to work on his technical game."

Johnson said he considers himself a better player than he was at the conclusion of his rookie season. Hand placement was a focus in the offseason, and one aspect of his position on which he thinks he's improved.

"I feel like a lot more comfortable in my set and just knowing my job, knowing what sets to take," he said. "I just feel a lot more knowledgeable, having the learning experience of last year. I think I'm in a good place."

On Twitter: @jakemkaplan

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