Apr 20, 2013; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers linebacker A.J. Johnson (45) during the first half of the spring Orange and White game at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

2014 NFL Draft: Pre-Season Breakdown - A.J. Johnson, ILB Tennessee

While most of the focus for the Tennessee Volunteers this season for the NFL Draft will be in the trenches, they have talent in other spots including at inside linebacker with A.J. Johnson.  He has the size to compete in the SEC even only as a sophomore and in addition to being their middle linebacker, Johnson also has gotten carries in certain short yardage packages.  As a sophomore, Johnson contributed 63 solo tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a pass deflection on defense while adding 12 carries for 21 yards and 6 touchdowns as a fullback.

Johnson has the size and strength to be a productive linebacker for the Vols but his speed is average at best and his inability to take on and shed blocks as well as take good angles makes him a work in progress as a run defender.  Based on his sophomore season, Johnson is a late third day pick, but if he can improve his athleticism and do a better job of fighting through blocks to make plays, he could end up making a significant jump and possibly warranting a top 100 pick.

Vitals & Build

Johnson is listed at 6’2” and in the low 240s.  He is a strong player but he is lumbering as a foot athlete.  Johnson’s long speed is not terribly good and he is not overly quick.  At times, he will flash some acceleration going forward but he really needs to work on improving his quickness and speed.  That might come in the form of losing some weight and putting it on a little more naturally, but it is holding back what he is able to do at this point.  If he can get faster while maintaining the strength he has, he has a lot of physical potential.  Johnson does have a good motor but it just needs a few more horsepower.

Tackling

Johnson does a decent job of wrapping up and bringing down ball carriers, but if he can get quicker, he can get in better position and take more advantage of his power.  When he can get in the hole with little room to operate, he can hit with a lot of power.  The bigger issue with Johnson is simply getting more opportunities to make tackles.  In addition to just getting in better position, the other opportunity for improvement is to do a better job of forcing fumbles to get the ball back to the offense.

Run Support

Johnson tends to struggle in run support unless there is a clear path to the ball carrier.  Experience will certainly help him improve, but he has an incredibly difficult time taking on and shedding blocks.  He is too easily driven out of the play and struggles to get skinny to avoid trash around him.  Johnson is strong enough, but he needs to get quicker and just work on his technical ability to improve.  As he was only a sophomore last year, this is not terribly surprising, but it will be crucial for him to take a big step forward as a junior.  Part of the problem is when he stops and braces for impact, offensive linemen are not forced to slow down and can use all of their momentum which makes it extremely difficult.  Occasionally, he will slip blocks and doing that more often will help keep opponents off balance and not be able to go full bore into his body.  On the other hand, when Johnson is going forward, he can be a hammer on the boss block against the fullback and close the hole down and give the ball carrier nowhere to go.

The other issue that hurts Johnson is he takes terrible angles to cut off runs and an underwhelming foot athlete looks worse when ball carriers are able to consistently turn the corner against him.  His range is limited as a result and he is not effective covering plays on the outside.

From a physical standpoint, Johnson should be able to be a good player in the A and B gaps and while there are times when he does not shed blocks, he is able to at least hold his ground much of the time.  He also has to work on his balance as he ends up on the ground too much and makes it too easy for opponents to shield him off from the runner.  There is a lot to improve upon for Johnson, but if he can do it, he can really improve his game and become more of an impact run defender.

Coverage

Johnson has a great sense of where plays are going, where receivers are trying to get to and where he needs to go.  He can see what is going to happen before it happens.  The problem for Johnson is when it comes to coverage, especially man coverage, he is simply too slow footed to do anything about it.  If he can get quicker and move faster, he can be a tremendous asset in man coverage because he does see what is coming.  Johnson should be able to at least be an asset in zone coverage if he can do a better job of breaking on the ball when thrown near him.  He gets to his drops pretty quickly, is constantly shuffling around with the play and moving his feet as well as doing a good job of reading the quarterback’s eyes.  For someone who clearly understands what the offense wants to do in the passing game, Johnson must be incredibly frustrated as he struggles to stop it.  The potential is there for him if he can improve his quickness and speed.

Pass Rush & Blitz Ability

Johnson can attack the A gap on a blitz as he does flash the ability to accelerate up the field decently well, but assuming he can gain more speed, he is a bigger threat in coverage.  His size and strength make him someone who can bring down the quarterback with some power if he can get there.

System Fit

Based on what he has done to this point, Johnson’s future appears to be an inside linebacker in the 3-4 or a middle linebacker in a 4-3 that really narrows his focus.  The less area he has to cover, the more he can take advantage of his strength and his speed is less of a problem.  He does appear to be capable of being able to help in zone as a coverage linebacker, so he could be a three down player, but needs to get better in the running game to get on the field.

Schedule

Sat, Aug. 31 vs. Austin Peay
Sat, Sept. 7 vs. Western Kentucky
Sat, Sept. 14 at Oregon
Sat, Sept. 21 at Florida
Sat, Sept. 28 vs. South Alabama
Sat, Oct. 5 vs. Georgia
Sat, Oct. 19 vs. South Carolina
Sat, Oct. 26 at Alabama
Sat, Nov. 2 at Missouri
Sat, Nov. 9 vs. Auburn
Sat, Nov. 23 vs. Vanderbilt
Sat, Nov. 30 at Kentucky

Notable Games

Oregon is going to put significant stress on Johnson to show his range against the pass as well as the run.  If he has gotten faster, that could be his coming out party.  Georgia has a combination of Arthur Lynch, their talented tight end and Todd Gurley, their impressive running back and Johnson is going to need to have a big game for Tennessee to pull off the upset.  Lastly, the game in Tuscaloosa against Alabama because Tennessee is going to want to make A.J. McCarron beat them with his arm, so Johnson and company will need to bottle up T.J. Yeldon for that to happen.

NFL Comparison

Based on what Johnson has done to this point, his game is somewhat similar to that of Chase Blackburn.  The former Akron Zip was a cog in a New York Giants defense that was able to win the Super Bowl.  Blackburn was extremely limited in his range and was mostly a two-down specialist that was there to stop the run with his size and strength.  The difference between Blackburn and Johnson is that is all Blackburn was ever going to be, while Johnson could have the potential to be far more.

Draft Projection

At this point, most of what Johnson brings to the table is size, strength, instincts for the passing game and potential.  There are reasons to like what he can be in the future and he could be just scratching the surface for what he can do with more technique and experience.  Based on his sophomore year, he is a late day three pick, but if he can improve his quickness, do a better job of beating blocks to attack the run, and improve the angles he takes to cut off the run, he could be a breakout player for the Vols and significantly increase his stock for the NFL, should he opt to declare.

Tags: 2014 Mock Draft 2014 NFL Draft A.J. Johnson Inside Linebackers Middle Linebackers Tennessee Volunteers Football

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