IT WAS NOT easy starting 17 games, playing every right-tackle snap but one over the entire season, as a rookie in Chip Kelly's Eagles offense. Lane Johnson didn't really let on how hard it was; the fourth overall pick in the 2013 draft always seemed poised, confident and relaxed when he spoke with reporters.
But when his rookie year finally ended with that 26-24 playoff loss to New Orleans, "I was tired," Johnson allowed yesterday, as he took a break from working out at NovaCare in preparation for next week's organized team activity. "Mainly I just needed to rest."
Johnson had been in the spotlight ever since the end of his senior season at Oklahoma. There was the Senior Bowl, the NFL Scouting Combine, the draft, then getting up to speed to start on Week 1 for the Eagles, then the season itself, so much longer than what he'd experienced in college. Oh, and along the way, Lane and his wife, Chelsea, gave birth to their first child, a son named David.
Three of the first four selections in the 2013 draft were offensive linemen, in an overall class much less celebrated than this year's bunch, and none of them threatened to win offensive rookie of the year. (That honor went to Green Bay running back Eddie Lacy, a second-rounder.) First overall pick Eric Fisher struggled mightily in Kansas City, contending with repeated speculation that he might be benched. Luke Joeckel, taken second overall by Jacksonville, started five games, then missed the rest of the season with a broken right ankle.
Johnson had the best rookie year of that highly touted trio. He demonstrated the athleticism the Eagles prized, but he was raw and inconsistent early. The Kansas City loss, the third week of the season, Johnson gave up two sacks and missed a key block, helping kill a two-point conversion try. But Johnson, a former quarterback with only two college seasons at tackle, showed quickly that he learned from mistakes.
"The one thing I've said about Lane before is he very rarely makes the same mistakes twice," Eagles coach Kelly said in November, as people started to notice Johnson's improved consistency. "That's the mark of a really good football player."
The rough night against the Chiefs "was a tough pill to swallow," Johnson said yesterday. "But I think moving on from that just shows maturity. If you're going to be able to stay in the league [that's what you need to do.]
"I think after, probably, Week 4-5, I started picking up the pace, and I think I played really well through the stretch . . . I think I peaked at the right time," Johnson said.
"Confidence is a big factor in it. Whenever rookies first start out, they have a bad game, your confidence gets shaken. You're not sure of yourself, your head's spinning. Then once you go out there and have a few good games, [you] notice that you can really kind of mix it up, have the skill set to do some things. I think confidence was a big factor with me developing there at the end of the year."
There were several reasons why 2011 Eagles first-round guard Danny Watkins failed so spectacularly, but confidence surely was part of it. When Watkins struggled, he seemed to become hesitant, withdrew emotionally. Unlike Johnson, Watkins was inexperienced not just at offensive-line play, but at football in general. When push came to shove, he seemed overwhelmed. Johnson never was.
The Pro Football Focus grading system gave Johnson a minus-12.7 for the first half of the season, a plus-12.9 for the second half. Their analysis showed most of Johnson's struggles coming in the passing game, as he did things you might expect an inexperienced tackle to do - lunge with his head down, shoot his hands at the wrong time. In the run game, PFF graded Johnson plus-6.7 for the season, best among rookie tackles and 11th best among tackles overall. Kelly's offense is built around the kind of running plays Johnson seems best suited for, charging out to the second level with LeSean McCoy on his heels.
"I know I have the talent to one day be a Pro Bowl player," Johnson said. "That's my goal. I have a lot more confidence this year."
Other than rest, Johnson felt he needed to come out of the offseason with more upper-body strength.
"I wanted to come back more developed," he said. He said he gained about 10 pounds over his 6-6 frame, now weighs "close to 320."
To be a top-money offensive tackle in the NFL, Johnson will have to move to the left side at some point. Jason Peters is a six-time Pro Bowler at that spot, and recently signed a contract that could last five seasons and earn him as much as $51.3 million. But Peters also is 32, and the dead money in his deal if he's cut goes from $8 million in 2015 to $3 million in 2016, according to Spotrac.com.
Johnson said he isn't thinking about taking over for Peters. He acknowledged he was mildly surprised the Eagles didn't draft an offensive lineman earlier this month, with three starters on the wrong side of 30, but "those three guys, they take good care of their bodies. They're in really good shape."
Johnson has met 2014 first-round pick Marcus Smith, an outside linebacker, and has reflected on what he wished he'd known a year ago, when he was in Smith's position.
"Don't overthink things," Johnson said. "Try to keep it simple. I think when you keep things simple, they're easier."
The Eagles announced the signing of fifth-round safety Ed Reynolds to the standard 4-year contract. This brought the total to five signed draftees, out of seven. Only first-round rush linebacker Marcus Smith and second-round wide receiver Jordan Matthews remain outside the fold . . . The 2014 Eagles will assemble as a full squad for the first time Tuesday, with an organized team activity that runs through next Thursday.