When training camp began, the candidates to play the SAM linebacker in Jonathan Gannon’s defense were Genard Avery, Joe Ostman, maybe Ryan Kerrigan and longshot 7th-round rookie Patrick Johnson.
Avery has practiced very little since suffering a groin injury back on Aug. 7. He returned briefly, got hurt again and hasn’t practiced since. So much for Avery.
Ostman was waived / injured Tuesday with a concussion. So much for Ostman.
Kerrigan left practice with a thumb injury on Aug. 2 – the fifth day of practice - underwent surgery Aug. 10, and hasn’t practiced since. So much for Kerrigan.
Which leaves one guy. Five days before final cuts, Johnson is the last man standing.
The SAM in Gannon’s system is a hybrid off-ball linebacker and edge rusher, so it’s a position that requires a player who’s fast and athletic enough to drop back and cover backs and tight ends but also skilled and strong enough to rush the quarterback.
Nobody really knows how much Gannon will use the SAM backer, but he talks about the position a lot and clearly values the versatility it requires to line up at SAM in his scheme.
“What we are asking them to do within our scheme is a little bit different,” Gannon said before practice Tuesday at the Jets' facility. “The MIKE and the WILL are mostly stacked and the SAM, sometimes he's stacked but sometimes he's on the ball. So it just presents a little bit different skill set for those three guys and what we are asking them to do.”
Johnson has flown under the radar during training camp, but with Avery and Kerrigan sidelined and Ostman waived injured, he’s in a position where he has a legitimate chance at a roster spot.
Johnson was a three-year starter at Tulane and piled up 34 tackles for loss, 21 sacks and 11 pass breakups over the last three seasons. Very good production.
At 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, he has the build for Gannon’s SAM, but it remains to be seen whether he can cover or get to the QB consistently enough to get on the field. And as a rookie 7th-round pick he’s fighting an uphill roster battle.
Avery might have an edge over Johnson just because of what Howie Roseman spent on him.
The Eagles traded a 4th-round pick to the Browns at the 2019 trade deadline, but the 26-year-old Avery has very little to show for parts of two seasons here. He started out camp as the favorite at SAM but wasn’t having a particularly good camp when he got hurt, and who knows when he’ll be healthy.
It’s fair to wonder whether Roseman will keep Avery on the 53-man roster despite his injuries and lack of production simply because he spent a 4th-round pick on him.
As for Kerrigan, he isn’t going anywhere, but he hasn’t practiced in more than three weeks, and even the few days he did practice he wasn’t in the SAM mix, although he does have the tools to play there.
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.
He played 46 snaps on defense in the Steelers game and had six tackles and a tackle, then played 27 defensive snaps against the Patriots and had three tackles. He also played 25 special teams snaps in the first two preseason games.
With the starters not expected to play much Friday against the Jets, look for Johnson to get a ton of playing time as he tries to build on his intriguing resume.
And with the other SAM candidates all likely out for Friday night, the stakes are very high for Johnson. With a good performance against the Jets, Johnson may be in line not just for a roster spot but for playing time once the regular season begins.
Subscribe to the Eagle Eye podcast: