Philadelphia Eagles positional reviews: Is offensive tackle Lane Johnson on the hot seat?

Philly.com is looking at the Eagles’ 90-man roster this week and next before they begin organized team activities on May 23. Here’s the schedule: 

May 8: Wide receivers
May 9: Running backs
May 10: Offensive linemen
May 11: Tight ends
May 12: Defensive ends
May 15: Defensive tackles
May 16: Linebackers
May 17: Cornerbacks
May 18: Safeties
May 19: Quarterbacks

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

Spotlight on: Lane Johnson

It's been written plenty of times before, but it bears repeating: When Lane Johnson was in the lineup last season, the Eagles went 5-1. When he wasn’t, they went 2-8. There was a variety of reasons for this disparity, and let’s not forget that the Cowboys sat many of their starters in the season finale. But Johnson helped make the offense better -- that is without dispute. The numbers back it up. The Eagles scored 27.1 points per game, averaged 5.4 yards per play and allowed only 1.5 sacks per game when Johnson played. They scored 20.1 points, averaged 4.8 yards per play and allowed 2.4 sacks when he was suspended.

The offensive inefficiency during Johnson’s absence could also be attributed to the drop-off at right tackle. Rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai was thrust into the vacancy in Game 5 and predictably struggled. He improved marginally over the next five games – until he suffered a knee injury – but remained inconsistent. Allen Barbre moved over from left guard when Vaitai went down and helped stabilize the right flank, but he was the first to acknowledge that he didn’t feel as comfortable on the outside. Rookie Isaac Semualo nobly stepped in for the injured Barbre in the game before Johnson’s return and held his own, but again, he could not match Johnson’s production.

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Johnson doesn’t get a pass for his off-field digressions. He has been suspended twice for using performance-enhancing drugs and would face up to a two-year ban if nabbed again. He claimed ignorance after the second offense, saying he was misled by a mobile phone app supplied by the union that delineates between approved and prohibited substances. But there is no excuse for not knowing. One more strike, and he could find himself out of the NFL for good.

Which would be a shame, because Johnson is hitting his prime years. He turned 27 just this week and is poised to take over for Jason Peters at left tackle in the near future. Some, including yours truly, underestimated the likely Hall of Fame-bound Peters and predicted that last season would be his last with the Eagles. But he fought off Father Time yet again and will return for a 14th NFL season.

The Eagles might have thought as much, at least based on the five-year extension Johnson signed last offseason. His cap number jumps to $9,843,750 and he is now the highest-paid right tackle in the league by almost $2 million. In other words, the Eagles were beginning to escalate his deal to account for an eventual move to the left side. They can get away with having their tackles as the highest cap numbers on the roster partly because Peters is only the 14th-highest-paid left tackle in the NFL. His cap number for 2017 is $11.7 million. They also have that luxury with Carson Wentz still playing on his rookie contract.

The Eagles also needed to prioritize the tackle position. They want to go into Wentz’s second season with some uniformity on the edges of the line. Peters’ age (35) might suggest that he will regress – it would be unwise to doubt him again, however – but Johnson should still be peaking. How good can he be? He certainly has the physical skills and toughness. He hasn’t missed a snap when not suspended. But he has yet to have a 16-game season that would place him among the better tackles in the game and justify being the No. 4 overall pick in the 2013 draft. Johnson has a lot riding on this season, and he knows it.

On the 53-man roster: Allen Barbre, Brandon Brooks, Johnson, Jason Kelce, Jason Peters, Isaac Seumalo, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Stefen Wisniewski

The offseason brought about few changes on the line. Whereas last year was about reinvesting in the unit, this year was about stability. To some surprise, that meant keeping Barbre, re-signing Wisniewski and, to this date, retaining long-time center Kelce. Barbre comes relatively cheap for a sixth man. He’s in the last year of a contract that will cost the Eagles $2.25 million against the cap. Barbre started 12 games last season – nine at left guard and three at right tackle. He might have been having his best season until he ran into hamstring issues in November. But he will be 33 next month and might be better employed as a utility lineman at his point in his career. Doug Pederson didn’t award Seumalo the No. 1 left-guard spot this offseason, so the Eagles obviously want the second-year lineman to earn the starting role. But if he isn’t ready, Barbre isn’t so bad of a stopgap.

Wisniewski, who was a free agent, signed a three-year, $8 million contract that could be worth up to $14 million if he hits certain incentives. Last offseason, despite starting in every NFL game over his career, he couldn’t get anything more than a one-year, show-me deal. This offseason, he got more years and $3 million guaranteed even though he started only six games at left guard. The draft was said to be weak at offensive line, and that is why the free-agent contracts were outlandish, but Wisniewski's contract seemed excessive, especially if Kelce stays. Howie Roseman countered that the Eagles found it imperative to invest in depth at the position and create competition, and that cannot be argued with in theory.

At the time of Wisniewski’s signing, it appeared all but certain that Kelce would be gone. The Eagles just signed a swing interior lineman to a multi-year deal and also had Semualo – the presumed heir apparent at center – waiting in the wings. They did dangle Kelce on the market – and he is likely to stay there with the potential for injury around the league – but the Eagles weren’t going to part with the 29-year-old for nothing. He struggled early last season – he was the first to concede that. But he rebounded in the second half  and had some strong singular performances (see: in Seattle). Does he get pushed around by some of the bigger interior linemen in the league? Yes. But he’s still probably the fastest center in the league, both in getting to the second level and in pulling on sweep, outside zone run plays.

One of the arguments for giving Seumalo the starting center job now vs. later is that the Eagles might as well get on with establishing chemistry with Wentz if Seumalo is, in fact, in line to succeed Kelce. I can see that. One argument against it is that he isn’t ready and that might harm the quarterback’s development. Seumalo is a bright young man. He played center more than any other position in college. And he appears to have the necessary physical traits. He’s listed as only eight pounds heavier than Kelce, but he looks bigger. My guess is that as long as Kelce is on the roster, Seumalo will stay at guard this season. He might stay there even if Kelce leaves, with Wisniewski getting the nod. There’s less responsibility at guard, and the Eagles might be inclined to ease Seumalo into the lineup in between Peters and Kelce.

Brooks is cemented into the right-guard spot. He had a solid season after signing a five-year, $40 million contract last offseason. He did miss two games when he experienced pre-game anxiety. The Eagles had to scramble both times and lost both games. To Brooks’ credit, he sought help and began to take medication. He publicly addressed his condition – he had missed two games with the Texans under suspicious circumstances — and never made excuses or pointed blame elsewhere. He started and finished the final three games of the season. While anxiety is a legitimate sickness and lacks what could be defined as a “cure,” Brooks appears to be in good health entering this season.

After missing two full games and parts of several others in 2015, Peters started all 16 and sat out only 33 snaps in 2016. Was he the 2011 or the 2013 Peters? Hardly. But he was still about as good as most tackles in the league. He was voted to his ninth Pro Bowl in December. The Eagles did a fine job of keeping him fresh throughout camps, the preseason and the season. Peters practiced sparingly and underwent an extensive, individual stretching routine before every practice. He also seemed to be enjoying playing in a more traditional offense, rather than one built on an up-tempo pace. Peters has two years left on his contract, so a 15th season shouldn’t be ruled out. He has never won a playoff game in his career, let alone a Super Bowl. He has said that he wants to taste that feeling before retiring.

Vaitai, a fifth-round draft pick in 2016, wasn’t exactly ready for his step into the spotlight, but the experience should aid him as he logs more time in the NFL. Does he project as a full-time starter? My guess is no. But he could become a reliable reserve with some nurturing. I wouldn’t expect Vaitai to dress on game days if the Eagles go with seven offensive linemen on their 46 – the versatile Barbre and Wisniewski would seem the more likely backups – but he should be on the 53-man roster come September.

On the 53-man bubble: Josh Andrews, Dillon Gordon, Darrell Greene, Matt Tobin, Chance Warmack

If the aforementioned eight are shoo-ins to make the roster, there could be as few as one remaining spot. In fact, some teams have been known to keep only eight offensive linemen. The Eagles, though, kept as many as 10 last season, including Andrews, Gordon and Tobin. Some of that had to do with keeping Gordon off the practice squad and thus unavailable for other teams to poach. The Eagles liked the undrafted rookie and former tight end’s upside. He spent almost the entire season inactive, so it’s difficult to gauge his readiness for play, but the team kept him around for a reason.

Tobin’s four-year run with the Eagles might be coming to an end. He was active for 12 games, but mostly because of Johnson’s suspension. He hardly played on offense. When a series of injuries during the Redskins game in December forced him onto the field, Tobin injured his ankle on a pivotal late play and Wentz was sacked to end the game. It was hard to fault Tobin, who played through the pain. Still, with the addition of Warmack and the Eagles deeper at other positions such as receiver, it’s unlikely that Tobin will make the team.

Andrews hung around for all 16 games, but was active for only three. Injuries, again, factored into his spot on the roster. He has value as a swing interior lineman, but the Eagles have Kelce, Seumalo and Wisniewski and three should be enough. Warmack, who played for offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland in college, was signed to a one-year deal in March. The former first-round pick was a disappointment in Tennessee, but maybe Stoutland can tap into the ability that made him one of the best linemen in college.

Greene, an undrafted rookie, spent most of last year on the practice squad. He projects as a guard. His path to the 53-man roster seems filled with hurdles, but he could be a second-year player who benefits from his first full offseason.

On the 90-man bubble: Aaron Neary, Dallas Thomas

Neary, a guard, was signed to the practice squad in September after the Broncos waived him. Thomas was inked to a reserve/future contract in January. A former third-round draft pick, he spent four seasons with the Dolphins and started at guard in 26 games. He follows the esteemed Reynolds as Eagles who go by the name of the city of their bitter rivals.

Draft picks: None

Predictably, the Eagles didn’t expend any of their picks on offensive linemen. Joe Douglas said he thought the class was deeper than many analysts had thought, but that might have been just a pre-draft smokescreen. The Eagles are reportedly set to sign West Virginia center Tyler Orlosky as an undrafted rookie. They should add one or two more rookies by the time rookie camp starts on Friday.