Lane Johnson expects to get full clearance from ankle surgery rehab right around his 31st birthday next month. The deltoid ligament repair ended Johnson’s 2020 season in November; it corrected a problem rooted in a 2018 injury. The Eagles’ three-time Pro Bowl right tackle missed four games in 2019, nine last season.
It has occurred to Johnson that the Eagles could take an offensive tackle 12th overall in this month’s NFL draft, and even if they don’t, they could go that way with another of the four picks they hold in the draft’s first three rounds. The starting O-line group is aging, and it carries an extensive collective injury history.
The team’s 2019 first-round tackle, Andre Dillard, is expected to compete for a starting job after biceps tendon surgery cost him the 2020 season. Jordan Mailata, the former rugby player from Australia, finally got on the field last year and showed he was more than just an intriguing project. Fourth-round rookie Jack Driscoll played more than anyone expected, and he looked pretty good. Dramatic change is looming for this group before too long.
“They may draft another offensive tackle. They got guys coming for me. … That’s the name of the game; it’s all about competition,” Johnson said Thursday. “Those guys push you, they develop you, and it’s just part of the nature of the business.”
Johnson recalled that when the Eagles drafted him fourth overall in 2013, left tackle Jason Peters was 31 and hadn’t played in 2012 following two repairs of the same Achilles tendon. The widely held perception was that within a few years, Johnson would take over for Peters. Instead, Johnson settled in on the right side. Peters, through injury ups and downs, remained an Eagles mainstay through last season, when he was 38.
Johnson signed a four-year, $72 million contract extension in 2019 that carries what would seem to be prohibitive dead cap numbers for trading him this year or next year — he counts nearly $18 million against the cap this year, but the dead money would be $11 million more than that, and in 2022, those figures would be $14 million for Johnson on the roster, $21 million in dead money if he isn’t.
After the Eagles decided they could withstand the largest dead cap charge in NFL history — $33.8 million — this offseason in trading Carson Wentz to the Colts, the idea of what is or isn’t conceivable, dead-money-wise, might have gotten a little blurry. But they certainly lack the cap room to do anything with Johnson in 2021.
And Johnson doesn’t want to go anywhere, he said, even as he contemplates starting the backstretch of his career on a rebuilding team.
‘If you’re 4-11-1, hey, you better rebuild; you better come up with some kind of phrase, to get better,” he said. “As far as where I’m at in my career, I’m at a sense of urgency. I want to hit my prime the next four or five years, and then see where I’m at, finish this out strong.
“I like being around the young guys, I like talking to ‘em, I like helping them out with their game. And they motivate me, they push me.”
Praise for Jalen Hurts
Johnson said he has spoken recently with second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts. He said he was impressed with Hurts’ maturity before they became teammates; Johnson said he felt Hurts navigated a tricky situation well when he transferred from Alabama to Johnson’s Oklahoma alma mater before his final college season.
“What you saw [in the four games Hurts started last year], I think you see a guy who has an arm and is versatile, with his legs, but we’re still waiting to see — you know, [with Hurts as] QB 1, what we can do in a full season. ... He carries himself like a veteran,” Johnson said.
Asked if he could get excited about playing for a team expected to endure another losing season as it tries to get younger, Johnson said: “I wouldn’t pick us to go anywhere either, off what we did last year. We’ve got a lot to prove. I think we’ve done a lot of talking over the years. Maybe I’m one of ‘em. So, hey, it’s time to start producing.”
It helps that new Eagles coach Nick Sirianni retained offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, who came here from Alabama the same year Johnson arrived.
“I was excited about that. I heard reports about [Stoutland] going back to Alabama; I know they’ve been wanting him back there a long time. … You really can’t put into words what he means to me,” Johnson said. “The best way to describe it is like, Rocky had a Mickey in his corner, through all of his time. That’s what he is to [center Jason] Kelce, that’s what he is to all the other guys. He’s a great person. He likes developing guys on the field, but he really cares about the person off the field, too.”
Johnson was playing in pain, almost never really practicing, because of the ankle injury when he and general manager Howie Roseman clashed before the 2018 game in London against the Jaguars. The Inquirer reported last month that Roseman berated Johnson when Johnson said he was unsure he could play, then when Johnson put on his uniform and headed to the field, Roseman — apparently attempting humor — told him, “Good, you have your mouthpiece in, now you can’t say anything stupid.”
Johnson went back into the locker room and teammates had to talk him into playing. Seven plays into the game, he aggravated the injury.
“We’re all good,” Johnson said Thursday. “Three years ago, we had a little altercation. The way I put it, sometimes family has a little bit of troubles. We were able to overcome that and really, put it in hindsight. Our relationship is great. We’re so ultracompetitive that stuff like that happens.”
Johnson was doing interviews Thursday on behalf of Microban 24, an antibacterial cleaning product, with the intention of honoring frontline pandemic workers. Johnson honored Colleen Pomrink, a sanitation worker at a local ACME who was charged with cleaning and sanitizing her store during the pandemic. Johnson also passed out water ice to hospital workers in November, three months after a positive COVID test kept him away from teammates at the start of training camp.
This year, Johnson and the Eagles don’t know when they’ll be together in person. Offseason work starts remotely on April 19. The league is talking to the NFL Players Association about the timing and procedures for bringing players back into facilities. The union has said last year’s experience showed that on-field spring work isn’t needed. Teams — especially ones with new coaches and systems, like the Eagles — feel differently.
Johnson said there is talk of an agreement to do some work in person by the end of June. By then he’ll know about any draft additions to the offensive line. If Johnson could make the Eagles’ first-round pick, what would he choose?
“We lost DeSean [Jackson, the wide receiver, in free agency]. Get a big-time receiver that can pluck apples out there in the end zone. Do that,” he said. “Whoever we get, we’re lookin’ for some ballers.”