August 01, 2017
One of the biggest surprises of Eagles training camp – at least through the first week – has been the surprising play of second-year player and former undrafted-free agent Marcus Johnson. He, like the rest of the team’s new-look wideout corps has been impressive so far to say the least.
But given his credentials compared to the likes of former Pro Bowler Alshon Jeffery, veteran wideout Torrey Smith and the Birds leading receiver for past two years, Jordan Matthews, it’s interesting that this relative unknown from Texas would be getting so much attention.
Of course, there’s the counter-argument, the one that says the reason the receivers have looked so good has less to do with them and more to do with a subpar group of cornerbacks in desperate need of an upgrade like the one their offensive counterparts underwent this offseason.
It’s a classic chicken-and-egg argument: Do Carson Wentz and his receivers look so good because the secondary is bad? Or does the secondary look so bad because the offense is just that good?
The truth, as usual, likely lies somewhere in between those two extremes, although it’s definitely closer to the former.
On Tuesday came the first day of full tackling, and perhaps a chance for the defense to regain the upper hand, especially with the two biggest WR upgrades, Jeffery and Smith, having the day off. Not only was it well deserved after a strong start to camp for the two big free agent acquisitions, but it also gave head coach Doug Pederson a chance to take a closer look at some of the younger, lesser known receivers, like a Marcus Johnson.
“In Alshon's case, we just wanted to give him a day,” Pederson told reporters. “I’ve seen a lot from Alshon. Obviously, he has done a great job and this is a good way for us to get some of our younger players -- and Torrey, both -- a chance to get some reps with our younger guys.”
And Pederson must’ve liked what he saw from his receivers, even if it came at the expense of the cornerbacks he and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz have tried their best to defend. Again, it was the receivers who won the day, led in large part by Johnson, who Jimmy Kempski recently said looks like “the offspring of Jerry Rice and Randy Moss, if that were possible.”
“He's shown real good improvement from even last season,” Pederson said when asked what he’s seen from Johnson so far this summer. “He came into OTAs in shape. He came into camp in shape. Those are the kind of things you want to see from a receiver. He's smart. He’s a big guy, big target. He's making the most of his plays right now, and that is encouraging.”
On Tuesday, he continued making the most of those opportunities, according to Kempski:
Johnson was on the receiving end of a pair of deep balls today, both of which were dimes from Carson Wentz. On one of those connections, Johnson toasted Patrick Robinson, who quite frankly, has not looked good at all. On the other, I didn't get a great look at what coverage the Eagles were in, but Johnson was able to get behind Rodney McLeod deep down the sideline.
Still, Johnson's got quite a few players he’ll need to pass on the depth chart, not to mention the other rookies and fellow undrafted free agents he’ll have to keep at bay. The advantage he has is that he’s entering his second year playing in Pederson’s system. He understands the offense, which coupled with his strong play has led to him working with the second team in practice.
And on days like today and Saturday, when Jeffery or one of the other starters is out, it’s been Johnson moving up and taking those starter reps alongside Wentz.
"He's made an impact," Pederson said of Johnson on Sunday, a day after he took over for a dinged-up Jeffery. "He's shown up. He's making some plays. He's one of the guys that will continue to kind of give some reps from time to time with that first group and see where he's at. He's a young, talented receiver that filled in well yesterday."
But will there be a spot for him on the final 53-man roster, a roster that features considerably more talent at his position than it did a year ago?
Currently, there are five wideouts who seem to be more or less locks to make the team. They are: Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor, and rookie Mack Hollins. If they decide to keep just six players at that position, that leaves one spot and several players – including Johnson, rookie fifth-rounder Shelton Gibson, Bryce Treggs (who also had a great day on Tuesday), Paul Turner and others – competing for it.
In his latest roster projection, Kempski believes Johnson will earn that final spot. But because there’s so much competition near the bottom of the wideout depth chart, it’s still to early to know for sure. That’s why days like Tuesday, when two starters had the day off, are so important to Pederson and his staff.
“It’s good for these guys to get in there against a little bit better competition, to work with Carson, and some of the starters,” Pederson said. “We’re in an evaluating process with all our players. It's good to get our young guys the opportunity to step in there and compete.”
Johnson, it appears, has taken the early lead in that competition.
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