On Wednesday, Jeff McLane put out the inaugural Damaris Johnson hype piece of 2013. If you'll remember, Johnson was something of a revelation last offseason after the Eagles signed him as undrafted free agent (and paid a premium, unprecedented price to secure his services). Despite a slight, DeSean Jackson-esque frame, he impressed in camps and preseason with his soft hands and electrifying jitterbugness (not a word -- yet) in the open field. Andy Reid even made the DeSean Jackson comparison (a poor man's DeSean is more apt, due to lack of 4.3 speed). People wondered if the little guy opening eyes, who held the NCAA record for total all-purpose yards after his junior season and missed his senior year because of an unfortunate embezzlement episode, might burrow his way into the regular offense. There were some instances of that, there should have been more. Johnson had flashes of brilliance, sprinkled in with dangerous punt return moments that gave us heart attacks. But hey, without such antics we wouldn't have been privy to the 98-yard beauty against the Cowboys (not for the win, but to cover the spread at least!). Given Damaris's visibility and displays of scintillating ability, I was surprised when McLane wrote:
[Maclin] singled out Damaris Johnson, the small and speedy receiver who made the roster last season as an undrafted rookie but hardly did enough to suggest a quantum leap in Year 2.
Ok, the word "quantum" is pretty significant, but didn't Damaris Johnson in fact do enough in his rookie season to suggest he could make some kind of sizable leap? There were definitely fans and writers alike out there who surmised that Johnson's skill set would fit in a Chip Kelly-designed offense. Even Damaris himself felt that way:
"When I heard that Coach Kelly got hired, the one thing that just lit up in my mind was thinking, 'Oh, man, it's going to be a spread offense. He's going to give guys the chance to have the ball in space, and I know that that works to my advantage,' " Johnson said Wednesday.
Yesterday, Tommy Lawlor followed with an article on Iggles Blitz entitled "Wide Receiver Position is Wide Open," expressing his excitement and lauding Johnson's potential in the Eagles' new offense. He opined that Damaris might steal Jason Avant's position in the slot, citing the former's superior YAC stats:
The WR I'm most excited about is Damaris Johnson. He could steal the primary slot role from Avant. Check out this Yards after catch stat, per ESPN:
Jason Avant - 53 catches - 167 yards after catch - 8 receptions of 20 or more yards
Damaris Johnson - 19 catches - 104 yards after catch - 4 receptions of 20 or more yards
Avant is averaging 3.15 YAC per reception. Johnson is at 5.47. Which guy do you want with the ball in his hands?
It's a legitimate argument. Kelly preaches getting the ball out quickly, a different kind of quick strike offense than what we saw under Andy Reid. For that reason, it would be natural that Chip has a proclivity for players who can take advantage of open space and pick up chunks of yards once they receive the ball. It's the role Damaris was born to play, and he can line up anywhere -- in the slot, split wide, in the backfield. If anything, it is Johnson, not Jackson, who's equipped to be used like DeAnthony Thomas because of his experience as a ball carrier at Tulsa.
Fun stat: Damaris's official bio page on the Eagles website says he had 150 touches at Tulsa that went for at least 20 yards. A staggering amount, for sure. Not including kick/punt returns, he had 304 total touches receiving and rushing in college. *Brain goes into super complicated math mode.* So, wait, if that number doesn't include kick/punt returns, that would mean half of his offensive touches in college went for 20 yards or more. Is that possible? That's not possible, right? Please be possible, I want to believe it. If that number includes kick (122) and punt (53) returns, then the total touches for the sample size is 479, and means 31% -- 1 out of every 3-4 -- of them went for at least 20 yards. Still highly impressive. Taking a kick return at least 20 yards is considered the lower end of the norm, while doing so on a punt is considered a big play.
Examples are in the archives, and I don't have to tell you how much I value Damaris Johnson's skills (but I will later), or that I was his biggest advocate before (twice), during and after last season. The dude can really play, and I pray we as fans experience it more often in 2013. There's tremendously beneficial utility to be exploited with Johnson, he just needs a chance. Is my obsession weird and borderline unhealthy, as Mike Kaye might suggest? Or is perfectly healthy and totally reasonable, as Brandon Lee would suggest? Obviously, Brandon is the sane and correct one here. I think it's weird if you don't get (irrationally) excited by what Damaris Johnson's brings to the table.
I first watched Damaris in what turned out to be his final collegiate game, the 2010 Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, during which he tore up Hawaii and later earned a mention in my college football season/bowl recap.
Damaris Johnson vs Hawaii (via JMPasq)
Johnson is an elusive and dynamic playmaker, but one who lacks split-second acceleration and pure speed. He has trouble turning the corner and gets caught from behind. I know in the McLane article Howie Roseman said Damaris had long speed, but I disagree in the true sense of the description given that he very much plays to his 4.5+ time. As Lawlor pointed out, where Damaris excels most is with the ball in his hands. He's up there as the quickest blur of a player I've seen in that capacity, and is always a threat to turn a short gain into something more. A professional ankle-breaker and jock strap-snapper extraordinaire, Johnson has special vision coupled with moves on top of moves on top of double and triple moves, and I will yell from the mountaintop to find him consistent touches in the offense until it actually happens. I'm hopeful it happens with Chip Kelly at the helm. What's more, lost in the praise of his play in space is how talented a natural receiver Damaris is as well. He's sudden off the line, with great hands and body control to make difficult catches look easy.
If the Eagles insist on leaving Johnson as the top punt returner, he absolutely has to cut out the dangerous and unacceptable habit of fielding the ball inside his 10-yard line. I appreciate the desire to make a play, but... no, no, NO! Otherwise, and I feel this should be the case anyway, find on offense the touches Johnson requires. CREATE those touches, damnit. Just get the ball in his hands. Put Damais Johnson in position to make plays, even if you have to save him from himself by taking him off punt returns and incorporating those would-be touches into the regular offense. The team will be better for it the more he touches the ball, I promise.
Damaris Johnson Bandwagon, full steam ahead. Hop on.