Arguably the biggest question mark facing Jonathan Gannon’s defense entering the regular season is at the SAM linebacker position.
Through two preseason games, we know what the role of the SAM backer in this defense will be — someone who can rush the passer effectively, while also being versatile enough to play off the ball in a typical linebacker set. Genard Avery has been the presumed starter at that position throughout most of training camp. But, with his nagging injuries, along with his inconsistent play, the door is open for someone to snatch that starting spot.
Insert seventh round pick Patrick Johnson out of Tulane.
Johnson has been overlooked for most of camp this year. But now that Avery is sidelined, and Joe Ostman was waived/injured on Tuesday with a concussion, Johnson is the next man up.
Reuben Frank of NBC Sports Philadelphia writes, “Johnson has quietly had a good camp, especially the last couple weeks. The defensive coaches love his versatility, and he’s gotten reps at some point at all three linebacker spots, which speaks to his intelligence.”
Following the NFL Draft this year, fellow Full Scale writer Ryan Haynes took a look at Johnson individually and argued he could become the steal of this draft. You can read that full breakdown here.
In short, what makes Johnson such an alluring prospect, and a suitable candidate to play the SAM position in Gannon’s defense, is his elite athleticism. His Pro Day numbers speak to the explosiveness found on tape. He ran a 4.66 40-yard-dash, while recording 2.71 20-yard split, a 1.62 10-yard-split, and a 35-inch vertical jump.
He played a similar hybrid position at Tulane. In his senior season, Johnson recorded 39 total tackles and 10 sacks, finishing his collegiate career as Tulane’s all-time sack leader. As a pass rusher, Johnson isn’t necessarily known to have a go-to move in his arsenal, but he’s fundamentally sound and can perform nearly every pass rushing technique with some effectiveness.
Johnson also played 309 coverage snaps as an off-ball linebacker at Tulane. With his 4.6 speed, he should at least be passable in this department.
During his preseason outings in Philly, Johnson has played relatively well. He played 46 snaps against the Steelers and tallied 6 tackles with 1 tackle for a loss. Against the Patriots, Johnson played 27 defensive snaps and recorded 3 tackles.
While it’s not ideal to start a seventh round pick in their rookie season, the Eagles may not have any better options at the SAM spot. Avery is probably just as good as Johnson, but he’s entering his fourth season and hasn’t shown flashes of vast improvement. It’ll be interesting to see how much Howie Roseman values Avery, given the fact that he traded a fourth round pick for him two years ago.
Nevertheless, Johnson presents more upside than Avery, and Avery is currently injured. He’s had trouble staying healthy all throughout his career and we shouldn’t expect that to change moving forward.
Johnson will likely get the majority of reps at SAM in the upcoming preseason game against the New York Jets. With many of the starters not expected to go, watching Johnson will be one of my top priorities. He has an opportunity to solidify a roster spot with a good performance.
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