Last year, when Eagles wide receiver Marcus Johnson was feeling lost and alone, Jordan Matthews took his hand and provided guidance and encouragement.
Johnson was an undrafted rookie nobody in a strange town with a new team. Matthews, one of the team’s stars, took him under his wing and helped him, on the field and off.
“He’s like a brother to me,” Johnson said. “He’s a guy who, when I first came in last year, really helped me.
“My faith as a believer, as someone who continues to keep God first [helps me]. But sometimes you’re lost. You need that help. You need that guidance.
“I don’t even know if he understands how much he’s helped change my life off the field. And then when you talk about on the field as a receiver, the work ethic he brings every day has inspired me and helped me tremendously.”
Ironically, Matthews helped Johnson again Friday by being traded to the Buffalo Bills for cornerback Ronald Darby.
Matthews’ departure creates an extra roster spot at wide receiver that just might be Johnson’s ticket to a Week 1 NFL job.
The Eagles had only five wide receivers on their season-opening roster last year. There’s a good possibility that’s all they will keep again this year.
Before Matthews was traded, those five spots already appeared to have been locked up by Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, Nelson Agholor, rookie Mack Hollins and Matthews.
Matthews’ departure creates a roster opportunity that wasn’t there before Friday. Johnson appears to be the front-runner for that job at the moment, holding a slight edge over second-year man Bryce Treggs and rookie Shelton Gibson.
“It’s time for us to step up,’’ Johnson said. “It’s even more incentive for us to go harder and take advantage of whatever comes with it.’’
To do that, he needs to stay healthy. The 6-1, 204-pounder out of the University of Texas injured a hamstring last Sunday during the Eagles’ public workout at the Linc and missed Thursday’s preseason opener against Green Bay.
While Johnson was watching the game on television in Philly, Treggs was impressing the coaches with a seven-catch, 91-yard performance in the 24-9 loss to the Packers.
“It was tough [missing the game],” Johnson said. “It was a blessing all the way up until that point to be able to prove what I’ve proven and do what I’ve done [in the spring and summer].
“But this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. I understand I need to get back out there as soon as possible.”
Johnson returned to practice Sunday. He took more than a dozen snaps in the first 11-on-11 session but was held out of the remainder of the 11-on-11 and seven-on-seven work.
He said he was going back in for the second 11-on-11 session when wide receivers coach Mike Groh said, ” ‘Nope. You did some today. That’s good. But don’t kill yourself. You took a step forward today. Don’t do anything that’s going to cause you to take steps back.’
“It’s a lot better. I’ve been progressing each and every day. I feel good on it.”
With an apparently healthy Jeffery once again not participating in any 11-on-11 work, and coach Doug Pederson indicating that probably will be the case for the rest of camp, Johnson took several first-team reps in three-wide-receiver personnel packages.
Assuming his hamstring makes it through the next two days of practice, Johnson is expected to see his first preseason action Thursday night at the Linc when the Eagles host Matthews and the Buffalo Bills.
Last summer, Johnson suffered a quad injury early in training camp that effectively cost him a shot at making the Eagles’ roster.
He played a total of 23 snaps in the first three preseason games. The team saw enough promise in him to sign him to the practice squad but released him a week later to make room for quarterback Aaron Murray. It eventually re-signed him to the practice squad in early December. Ironically, that move was prompted by an ankle injury to Matthews.
“I hurt it early,” Johnson said of last year’s quad injury. “It was kind of like a ticking bomb. It sidelined me early. From there, it just seemed like an uphill battle.”
The two months between his initial release from the Eagles’ practice squad and getting re-signed in December were stressful. He worked out for a couple of teams, but they didn’t sign him. Then the Eagles called.
“It was tough,’’ he said. “It was a legit full two months of just sitting at home. You really have to sit back and evaluate yourself. You have to trust the process. You have to trust what God has planned for you.
‘’I never doubted myself. That’s one thing I really took pride in that whole time. In my mind, I was just saying, ‘I’m going to stay prepared, and when that next opportunity comes, I’ll be ready.’
“It’s a blessing to be back here. It was meant for me to be back here, for whatever reason. The progress I’ve made, who knows? If I’d gone somewhere else, I’d be scrambling to learn a new playbook and not be as comfortable. So, it’s a true blessing to be back and showing what I can do.’’