Eagles’ Taron Jackson and Patrick Johnson ready to fill in for injured Derek Barnett

Patrick Johnson took the news hard.

The entire Eagles were shocked to hear that Derek Barnett ripped up the AFC Champions League in their season opener, but Barnett was a mentor of sorts for Johnson over the course of his first season in the NFL.

It’s really important in our room,” Johnson said. “We hate to say the next guy is going to be, but at the same time there are opportunities for everyone in that room right now to make a move and try to fill that role.”

Two of the players with the most chance of more playing time are Johnson and fellow sophomore Taron Jackson.

Jackson is listed as a defensive end and Johnson is listed as a linebacker. But their sophomore jobs under Jonathan Gannon are pretty much the same. Both are required to rush into the middle. And both showed some impressive improvement this summer after relatively quiet junior seasons.

“We talk to our guys a lot about it, about their roles and how if you’re back up you’re one step away from getting in, and that’s how you’re going to play for Tarun,” said Nick Siriani, head coach.

The Eagles have drafted four players in the last two rounds of the 2021 draft and three of them have increased roles in defense: Marlon Tuipuloto, Jackson and Johnson.

And all three showed the really needed improvement this summer. Tuipulotu carried it in the first game of the season with the best dash assists in the opening game against the Lions. Jackson and Johnson hope to follow up soon.

“It’s the second year in the league and we’re lucky enough to have the same coaching staff,” Johnson said. “So we’re starting to understand what the coaches really want. They say from year one to year two, if you don’t make that step in a positive direction you can get out of here quickly. It’s a mindset.”

When the Eagles drafted Johnson, they praised his versatility and help him make the list for a beginner. But in that first season, he played a lot of full-backs off the ball, which didn’t give him many opportunities to speed up the pass.

This year, Johnson is working more on the edge and feeling right at home.

“I do it 100 percent,” Johnson said. “I think the coaches are starting to see that too. But at the same time, though, I’m enjoying covering. It’s just part of my game where I can do both.”

This year, the Eagles have their “trainee” players in the same room with coach Jeremiah Washburn. It is a collection of defensive players and defensive line SAM players. All players rushing passersby but with different skills. Johnson is more than happy to dash over the passers-by and Jackson is happy to have improved his sprinting skills.

In particular, Jackson really worked on taking him down, which is a key component of any effective passing in the NFL.

“For me, the struggle I had was being able to get off the ball and really get on the ground, so when I’m making my fast passing moves, I wasn’t very far from the attack line,” Jackson said. “And that kind of helped me. And my hand is just getting better at running. I feel like I’ve come a long way.”

The Eagles only had one sack in their opening season win in Detroit and that came after a poor shot. For a team with just 29 sacks (the second worst sack in the NFL) in the 2021 season, this wasn’t a promising start.

But the Eagles are still confident that their passing dash will improve. They really depend on the veterans in that group to put that pressure on, but a young couple now have a chance to make their mark as well.

“I think we’ve all taken the next step,” Johnson said. “But this is just the beginning. This is just year 2 so we have a lot to improve.”

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