Lane Johnson returned to the Eagles' practice facility Monday after a 10-week suspension, and he will be the starting right tackle when the Eagles host the New York Giants on Thursday. Coach Doug Pederson did not waste any time making the decision. In fact, he made it before even meeting with Johnson during the truncated week of preparation because of necessity.
"Going into this game, considering the nature of the injuries that we've had and everything and with Lane being back today, Lane will go in as the starter," Pederson said.
Pederson alluded to an injury report that included the three other players who've started at right tackle this season: Halapoulivaati Vaitai (knee), Allen Barbre (hamstring), and Isaac Seumalo (ankle). All three might be able to play Thursday, but Pederson still needs to see them at practice in the coming days. Johnson, who has been training on his own for 10 weeks, is the healthiest in the group - no matter his shape after a suspension for a second violation of the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy.
"What else do I have left?" Pederson said. "I'm just going, 'Lane, you're the guy. I don't care if you are X weight. You've got to play.' Listen, Lane, he's an athlete and I'm sure he worked out and kept himself in shape and stayed relatively around. . . . He was about 318, 319 when he left us, so I expect to see him about that weight. . . . And with the injury situation, you've got to go."
Johnson met with offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland and assistant Eugene Chung on Monday morning. Pederson, who needed to begin game-planning during the short week, had not seen Johnson before his 2 p.m. news conference. When asked if there's greater injury risk because Johnson hasn't played in 10 weeks, Pederson said "it's possible," but he'll quickly observe what type of shape Johnson is in.
"You just have to kind of see when I put my eyes on Lane just to see where he's at physically and what he's been doing over the last 10 weeks," Pederson said. "But he's such a tremendous athlete that I wouldn't expect anything too traumatic to happen in the next couple of weeks. But obviously it is possible."
In four seasons with the Eagles, Johnson has been a model of durability. A first-round pick in 2013, he has not missed a game he's been eligible to play despite ailments at various times. His absences have come because of suspensions, including a four-game punishment in 2014 and the 10-game penalty this season.
The Eagles won three of the four games Johnson played, which included the only games this season when the offense scored at least three touchdowns. The Eagles averaged 28.75 points during Johnson's four games and 20.1 points during his suspension. There's no doubt that Johnson is one of the Eagles' best players and Pederson has cited his absence as a reason for the team's downfall since a 3-0 start.
With Johnson at right tackle, left guard is now the only question on a line that has started six combinations this season. Barbre started the season at left guard before moving to right tackle, and he could return from a hamstring injury that sidelined him on Sunday. However, Pederson did not fully commit to putting Barbre back at left guard.
"Something we're going to evaluate," Pederson said. "I've got to see where he's at health-wise, see if he's 100 percent. Obviously these last two weeks we're kind of getting our offensive line back to full strength. So that's something that we'll evaluate in these next couple of days."
Veteran Stefen Wisniewski started six games at left guard this season, including the last four weeks. But he's also on a one-year deal and might have only two games remaining in an Eagles uniform. With the Eagles out of playoff contention, they could focus on the youth on the roster.
That makes Seumalo a player to watch. Seumalo started at right tackle Sunday in the 27-26 loss to Baltimore, and his performance left an impression on Pederson. Seumalo suffered a high ankle sprain on the first drive and played the rest of the game. The Eagles view him as an interior lineman - he was originally supposed to start at left guard when the Eagles initially planned for Johnson's absence during the summer - and his development is important for the future of the offensive line. Pederson acknowledged that Seumalo "does [factor] a little bit" into his plan at left guard for Thursday.
"This week is going to be tough," Pederson said. "He does have the ankle sprain. It's going to be day-to-day with him to see where he's at. . . . He played well for his first right tackle start. He played extremely well. We've got a great player in Isaac and a versatile player that can play any of those positions now along the line. Gives us a little more depth these last couple of weeks. He will definitely factor in."
But it's a better problem to have than in previous weeks, when Pederson needed to find which reserves could make up that game's quintet. Johnson's return and the improved health of the other linemen makes the offensive line stronger than it has been since early October. It just happened too late.