When the Philadelphia Eagles drafted Lane Johnson No. 4 overall in the 2013 NFL Draft, he represented the highest profile offensive lineman that the team had ever acquired. 2013 was a true outlier year for the NFL Draft – thin on skill positions but well-stocked with offensive and defensive lineman. Of the plethora of available lineman, Johnson was one of the widely coveted “big 3” offensive tackles, and he slid to the Eagles at the No. 4 slot after the Miami Dolphins surprised NFL experts by trading up for defensive end Dion Jordan despite major deficiencies on the offensive line. This gambit contributed both to Miami GM Jeff Ireland‘s ultimate firing and LeSean McCoy winning the NFL rushing title.
How strange was the 2013 draft? Though Johnson went No. 4 overall, the two other members of the big 3 offensive tackles were actually drafted ahead of him. The Kansas City Chiefs drafted Eric Fisher No. 1, and then the Jacksonville Jaguars took Luke Joechel immediately after.
When the Eagles front office realized that Johnson, their top ranked college prospect, had slid to them at four, the team wasted no time submitting its selection. Eagles GM Howie Roseman reportedly marveled at Johnson measurables. He was initially impressed with Johnson’s tape, and then once they saw him in-person at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine he began to view Johnson as the perfect fit for Chip Kelly‘s up-tempo zone blocking scheme which requires uncharacteristic agility from offensive linemen. While watching Johnson perform drills, Roseman noticed rare lateral agility for a 300-pounder to go along with uncommon length. Throw in a well-regarded work ethic and Roseman became understandably smitten with Johnson. Nervous anticipation on the first day of the draft turned to joy when Johnson slid to the Eagles at pick No. 4.
As soon as he arrived at Eagles camp, Johnson was moved to right tackle and went on to start all 16 games for the Eagles his rookie year, missing only one snap all season. He struggled in the first half of 2013, however, allowing too many quarterback pressures and sacks. To a degree these struggles were expected, because Johnson had only been a tackle for a few years. He actually playing quarterback in junior college before transferring to Oklahoma.
As last season progressed, Johnson gradually improved. From Week 9 on, Pro Football Focus assigned Johnson a positive grade in eight out of nine games, including a +2.0 grade against the New Orleans Saints‘ vicious pass rush in the first round of the NFC Playoffs. Only San Diego Chargers‘ DJ Fluker graded out higher in 2013 at the tackle position.
Evaluating Lane Johnson’s 2013 performance is especially important for the Eagles as left tackle Jason Peters just recently turned 32. Offensive lineman that play into their 30s are often moved to right tackle or guard as their lateral agility wanes, and they struggle to cut off edge rushers on the quarterback’s blindside. Though he graded out as a top-5 tackle on Pro Football Focus, Peters cannot avoid the aging process. He is also three inches shorter than Johnson. Based on size and quickness alone, Johnson projects to be a better fit at left tackle. In 2014, look for the Eagles to start the process of installing Lane Johnson as the team’s franchise left tackle while extending Jason Peters’ career on the right side of the line.