After losing Jeremy Maclin, Jason Phillips, Arrelious Been and Philip Hunt to ACL tears and Joe Kruger to a shoulder injury during Training Camp and preseason, the Eagles have been fortunate enough to be the NFL’s healthiest team during the regular season, with only 117 man games lost to injury to this point.
Against the Minnesota Vikings, however, the team saw its secondary, already without rookie safety Earl Wolff because of a knee injury, lose three more players when corner Brandon Boykin (concussion), safety Kurt Coleman (hamstring) and safety Colt Anderson (knee) all went down. Each player's status for Sunday's crucial matchup against the Chicago Bears is unknown, and as a result, even with Wolff expected to return against the Chicago Bears, an opportunity has arisen for a member of the practice squad.
The news broke Tuesday that the Eagles had elevated Keelan Johnson, an undrafted free agent rookie safety out of Arizona State, to the active roster. He was first scooped up by the team on September 3 after being waived by the Miami Dolphins. At 5-foot-11 and 212 pounds, he boasts a compact build, is a smooth athlete and showed the ability in college to play both safety positions. Johnson's versatility to play coverage – he has experience as a centerfielder and in man-to-man – and be physical in a downhill role makes him an intriguing addition.
"I consider both spots the same thing," Johnson said of free and strong safety. "I consider it just being a safety. I don't want to put limitations on myself. I practice that way and look at both positions on the field as being interchangeable."
As a senior as Arizona State, Johnson helped lead a defense that was one of the best in the country against the pass, giving up only 168 yards per game (ranked third nationally) while holding quarterbacks to a 50.3 completion percentage. The unit allowed 23 touchdowns through the air and recorded 21 interceptions, five of which were made by Johnson (he also had 88 total tackles and broke up eight passes). He was a first-team All-Pac 12 selection in 2012, a triumphant way to go out, especially given how his four years with the Sun Devils unfolded.
"It started out rocky," Johnson said of his college career. "My first couple years there, there was a new coaching staff there so I had to prove to them that I could play. I had a falling out with them. Another new coaching staff came in and I had to change my appearance, my attitude towards the game and how I practice each and every day. I think Coach (Todd) Graham and that coaching staff down at Arizona State showed me the light and how to be professional going into the next level after leaving my senior year."
Johnson was invited to take part in the East-West Shrine Game in January and had a good showing in front of NFL coaches and personnel staffs, flashing his versatility and holding his own in one-on-one coverage drills against wide receivers. Johnson spoke with Eagles assistant special teams coach Matt Harper after practice one day. Keep in mind, Harper – and Chip Kelly, for that matter – was familiar with Johnson from seeing him play when Oregon faced off against Arizona State.
"He asked me a couple questions. He obviously knew who I was, so I felt like that helped that I'd played against him and he'd seen what I was capable of doing," said Johnson of his meeting with Harper.
So, what is Johnson capable of doing and what can be bring to a defense?
"I like to say I'm a physical player," Johnson said. "I give great effort, get to the ball and make plays happen, great tackler in open space. I feel like I'm versatile, I feel like I'm interchangeable, I feel like I provide range in the secondary and bring a presence back there that will be felt by receivers."
The Eagles liked Johnson enough that he felt he was going to end up with the team from the very beginning.
"I spoke to Coach Kelly on draft day and I thought I was coming here for sure as a late draft pick," Johnson said.
Johnson ended up signing with the Dolphins, but the Eagles kept a close eye on him throughout the preseason and jumped at the chance to bring him aboard.
"I was home for about 10 or 12 hours (after getting cut by Miami), and then, sure enough, the Eagles called me and I was on the first flight here," Johnson said. "I've made the best of it since."
As a member of the Eagles practice squad since the first week of the season, Johnson has kept his head down and worked hard each and every day to prove to the coaches that he not only belongs on an NFL roster, but that he can be an effective contributor, as well. He has made an impression in practices and Kelly lauded him for being "solid, very steady every single day, really consistent."
"Just being around the ball, showing them I can get in position to make the plays," Johnson said of what he felt the coaches noticed about him. "Obviously, we have to let the offense catch the ball when I'm on the scout team defense, but if I'm running to the ball every play and showing that effort out there, showing (the coaches) I'm capable of playing on this defense, I think that's something they take into consideration. I just went out every day and had the best attitude I could have, to show (the coaches) that I wanted to be here in Philadelphia and I was going to give whatever it took to be out there on the field playing for (Coach Kelly) and these guys out here."
The time has finally come for Johnson to get on the field in the NFL, live out his dream and take full advantage of the situation. He will start off on special teams, but in a secondary where constant competition reigns, there may even be an opportunity to play in the base defense at some point in the near future.
"I finally get my opportunity and my shot to go do it, it's something I've been waiting for a while now," Johnson said. "It's been a long journey, but I'm not where near where I want to be. I just look at it like that."