One year ago, Lane Johnson was in the pre-draft gauntlet. There was the Scouting Combine, followed by the private workouts and the interviews and the visits and the preening and exhaustive process that teams demand from draft prospects.
By the time the draft is complete and the player is selected, a natural exhaustion settles in. It's a tough place to be for a young man.
Johnson handled everything perfectly before the 2013 draft and after the Eagles made him the fourth player taken off the board. The Eagles loved Johnson's aggressiveness, his intelligence and his tremendous athletic ability and after a brief settling-in period, he earned the starting right tackle spot and didn't look back.
To understand how important it was and is for the Eagles to have nailed their first-round draft pick and to have their entire offensive line under contract through at least the 2016 season is to have some perspective of this franchise's offensive line history.
Until the early 2000s, in fact, the offensive line was a mismatch of pieces and patchwork efforts to go season to season with some stability. The Eagles developed some continuity for most of a decade before dismantling the line after the 2008 run to the NFC Championship Game. Both tackles after that game, Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas, were largely on their last NFL legs. The Eagles suddenly had holes at the bookend positions of the offensive line.
Now he were are, in the months leading up to the 2014 season, and the Eagles have as bright an offensive line picture as any in the league. Selecting Johnson, the third of the Big Three of the offensive tackle group taken in the 2013 draft, completed a fivesome that helped the Eagles set a franchise record with 442 points scored and 6,676 yards gained last season. The Eagles led the league in rushing and in explosive plays.
And while they had a strong cast of playmakers, they also had a group up front that made it all go.
"I think everything worked well together up front. We all worked as a group and were on the same page all season," said Johnson as the season ended. "I never felt like I hit any kind of a wall. I felt strong all season and things came to me more naturally as the season went along.
"I know I have a lot to improve. Every part of my game can get better and that's going to be my focus in the offseason."
The team's strength and conditioning program starts up again on April 21 and Johnson's arrival will be worth watching. He has room to grow his 6 feet 6, 313-pound frame and gain strength. The biggest improvement will not just be physical, though. Johnson knows his way around the NFL. The uncharted waters of a year ago are ones he's got experience in now.
Johnson's upside is such that the Eagles have super-high hopes and expectations for him. As this offense evolves into its second season, the expected step forward at the line of scrimmage is critical. That's why the Eagles extended the contracts of left tackle Jason Peters and center Jason Kelce prior to the free-agency period, and why the attention to detail in year one with new line coach Jeff Stoutland was so important.
This can be a great offensive line, the best in the NFL. A strong offseason, and one in which the first-round draft pick from one year ago makes his significant improvement, are part of the blueprint to success.
This year's draft is still a ways away -- seven weeks, to be exact -- and every team wants to hit on its picks. Johnson was a slam dunk by the Eagles, as it turned out. A former wide receiver/safety/quarterback/free safety/tight end in high school and in college before moving to the offensive line, Johnson is an explosive athlete who has the whole package.
How good can be become? What will it means for the Eagles offense if Johnson takes the steps forward to the top of his profession?
For now, it's one step at a time. The Eagles got their guy in the first round last season, and as Johnson goes through the paces in his first NFL offseason, the Eagles know just how important the pick was for the long-range health of this football team.