PHILADELPHIA - If the 2021 Eagles are going to make some noise in what's expected to be a down year, you can almost guarantee that any success will start with the offensive line.
A rash of injuries decimated what had been Philadelphia's strength in the Doug Pederson era with four of the five projected starters missing significant time.
When healthy, the Eagles' right side is arguably the best in football with a couple of All-Pros, Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson, flanking yet another All-Pro player at center in Jason Kelce.
With Brooks missing the 2020 season with his second torn Achilles' in three years and Johnson playing just seven games, all of them at far less than 100 percent due to August ankle surgery, the Eagles and veteran offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland were forced to use an NFL-record 14 different starting OL combinations.
Speaking on BIRDS365 Thursday, Johnson expects to be fully cleared from a second December ankle surgery in about a month.
"Going good. Still in rehab," Johnson told me. "I'm running, moving around well so probably a month out from being cleared fully but yeah, it was a tight-rope procedure in the beginning but I needed a deltoid repair, which is the inside ligament of your ankle. So that was torn. I tried playing as much as I could but I couldn't do the things or really push off the way I wanted to. Got the surgery Dec. 7.
"About five months out so feeling good. I'm feeling like my old self."
Brooks tore his Achilles' in June of last year and Johnson said his good friend is champing at the bit to get back.
"I know he's excited coming off that injury last year," Johnson said. "As far as being cooped up and ready to go, man, he's a ball of energy, and yeah, having [Jason] Kelce back to so we're eager to get out there and perform.
"We're eager to keep our quarterback clean and get this offense rolling. ...you know up front is where it starts and we're eager to get the job done so last year was unacceptable and we're here to change that."
The Eagles finished a dismal 4-11-1 in 2020, a result that meant a move away from Pederson and QB Carson Wentz less than three years off a Super Bowl championship.
New coach Nick Sirianni isn't allowed to have much communication with his players this time of year but will have full access when virtual OTA work kicks off on April 19.
"I think having a new coaching staff and having the record we had last year, there is a lot of emphasis, a lot of pressure, to do better than that," Johnson acknowledged. "That comes a lot from the players. We know where we stand.
"And really for the coaching staff, we really haven't had the opportunity to get acquainted with everybody. [I] met with Sirianni briefly before he had to go to a meeting. Had a little bit of small talk but we start virtual OTAs on the 19th so that will be a way to learn the playbook and get that down."
The O-Line room as a whole is facing a littles less upheaval than most of the other players because offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland was retained.
"That was huge. I mean you had reports in the offseason that he might be going back to Alabama, you know this and that, but I was ecstatic that he stayed," Johnson said of his long-time position coach. "You know, put in a lot of work with him and my teammates over the past eight, nine years and really got to know him."
The bond between Stoutland and all his star pupils is a strong one.
"Really, he's a unique guy," Johnson said when discussing Stoutland. "The way he teaches, the way he coaches and you see the success he's had with, maybe guys who weren't in the lineup and injuries. He's had to do that with interchangeable parts. I think that says a lot about him. He treats everybody as if they are a starter so if somebody goes down, it's the next-man-up mentality and you feel prepared."
In many ways that were the silver lining to the OL injuries with young OTs like Jordan Mailata and Jack Driscoll fast-tracking their development.
"It was huge, especially some of those situations they were put in," Johnson said. "Limited reps but, I've said this before, there is nothing that can really simulate a game. The more times they got to play, the more games they were in. I think you saw gradual and steady progress.
"You look at Mailata and where he started and where he ended up, The season that he had. Driscoll, the same way. Steady improvement and that's what you want to see."
All the change, though, is not lost on Johnson especially when it comes to former his former coach.
"Coach Pederson, first of all, is a great person," Johnson noted. "I think everybody was kinda shocked with everything that happened. I really haven't had the chance to catch up with him but know that I was appreciative of everything that he's done for us over the past five years that he was with us."
John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talk host Jody McDonald every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on both PhillyVoice.com and YouTube. John is also the host of his own show "Extending the Play" on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen
Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s EagleMaven. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.