After rising from the NFC East cellar to capture the division title in 2013, the Philadelphia Eagles were likely hoping for a nice, quiet offseason. Add a few pieces (like running back Darren Sproles) in free agency, have a good draft, avoid injuries and gear up to take the next step in 2014.
The Eagles haven't gotten their wish. First came the hoopla surrounding the release of wide receiver DeSean Jackson, and now it appears that the Eagles will open the season with a hole on the right side of their offensive line.
According to Paul Domowitch of The Philadelphia Inquirer, starting right tackle Lane Johnson will be suspended for the first four games of the 2014 season after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs:
League sources tell me Eagles starting RT Lane Johnson has tested positive for PEDs and will miss first 4 games.— Paul Domowitch (@pdomo) June 30, 2014
Johnson, who the Eagles selected with the fourth overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft, is coming off an up-and-down rookie season. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the former Oklahoma star thrived while run blocking, grading ninth among offensive tackles.
Pass protection, on the other hand, was another story. Johnson allowed 10 sacks (tied for sixth most in the league) and graded 67th at his position.
It's worth noting that as of yet, there has been no official announcement of a suspension from the NFL:
Re: Lane Johnson: NFL spokesperson says that no suspension has been handed down from league.— Tim McManus (@Tim_McManus) June 30, 2014
However, all indications are one is coming. This certainly wasn't the beginning to Johnson's sophomore season that the Eagles were hoping for, and it left fans shaking their fists:
Lane Johnson...brutal, what are you thinking? #Eagles— Jordan Voron (@VoronJordan) June 30, 2014
Their frustration is understandable, as Johnson's suspension leaves a Philly line that's long on front-end talent but short on depth in a tricky spot.
The next man up would appear to be journeyman swing tackle Allen Barbre, who joined the Eagles last year after missing the entire 2012 season.
The 30-year-old played well enough in his first year in Philadelphia that the Eagles recently inked Barbre to a three-year extension. At the time of the signing, head coach Chip Kelly lauded Barbre's ability to step up when called upon, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer's Zach Berman:
Allen has great versatility and his ability to play both outside and inside on the offensive line makes him so valuable to what we do. He’s been in this league for a number of years and we know we can count on him to step up and fill in whenever he is called upon. When Jason Peters went down in Green Bay last season, Allen jumped right in and our offense didn’t miss a beat.
As Jimmy Kempski of The Inquirer pointed out, that ability is going to be put to the test:
Re: Lane Johnson's suspension: RT will have to face Ryan Kerrigan (8.5 sacks in 2013) Week 3, Ahmad Brooks (also 8.5 sacks) Week 4.— Jimmy Kempski (@JimmyKempski) June 30, 2014
Barbre saw his most extensive action of 2013 in Week 10 against the Green Bay Packers, playing 52 snaps at left tackle in place of an injured Jason Peters.
Barbre received a positive grade from PFF in that game. However, back in 2009, when Barbre made the only seven starts of his career, it was a different story. That year Barbre graded outside the top 60 players at his position, and PFF rated him the seventh-worst pass-blocking tackle in the NFL that season.
The Eagles also might elect to insert Barbre into the lineup at right guard and kick Todd Herremans outside. The 31-year-old has extensive experience playing tackle (he manned the position for several seasons before moving inside when Johnson arrived), and in Herreman's eight starts at the position in 2012 he graded a respectable 27th among tackles at PFF, allowing four sacks.
On a scale of 1 to 5, how big a blow is Lane Johnson's suspension?
This news, coupled with the Eagles' lack of depth in the offensive front, will probably spur the team to look at signing an offensive lineman. Of course, at this late stage in the offseason, all that's available are players with major medical red flags like tackle Bruce Campbell or veterans whose best days are long behind them like Eric Winston (who started 16 games at right tackle for the Arizona Cardinals last year but graded out in the bottom 10 at his position, according to PFF).
Frankly, there's a reason why those players aren't on rosters, but at this point the Eagles are sailing dangerously close to "beggars can't be choosers" territory.
If there's a silver lining to this mess, at least the news broke now instead of a month from now. The Eagles will have some time to come up with a Plan B during the break before training camp begins, and then time in camp to implement that plan.
Still, continuity along the offensive line was a big part of the Eagles' success last year, and not only has that continuity taken a hit before camp even opens, but now an injury along the offensive line could be potentially devastating.
All in all, not the start to the month of July the Eagles were looking for.
Gary Davenport is an NFL Analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPManor.