The 23-year old is listed at 5’10” and 210 pounds and was a sixth round pick out of Maryland last season. He was released last week after not carrying the ball in the first few games of the season. Johnson rushed for 273 yards and caught 24 passes in his rookie season.
Johnson was a three-star high school recruit and earned a scholarship to Maryland, where he starred for them over the next four years, as he ended up in fourth place in school history for rushing yards.
He showed some big play capabilities in a reserve role as a freshman, averaging over seven yards per carry and scoring three touchdowns.
In 2016, Johnson became a starter and posted a thousand-yard season as he led the nation with a 9.1 yards per carry average. He also posted career-best receiving numbers with 16 catches and 206 yards.
Over the next two years, he didn’t manage to replicate that performance, but still averaged about seven yards per carry and had six more 100-yard games. However, in his senior year, Anthony McFarland started to take over the bulk of the workload and Johnson missed some time due to injuries.
Despite not being invited to the scouting combine, Johnson had a good pro day and was projected as a potential late round pick. The Lions selected him in the sixth round and he made their roster as a rookie.
Johnson played in a reserve role as a rookie and contributed on special teams. He was averaging 3.5 yards per carry entering the final game of the season, but then rushed for a career-high 65 yards on just three carries against the Packers.
He ended up with 273 yards at an average of 4.3 yards per carry. He also caught 24 passes, albeit only for 109 yards.
Johnson beat out rookie Jason Huntley to earn a spot on the initial 53-man roster this year but barely played in the first two games and then was a healthy scratch in the third. The Jets claimed him after he was waived.
Now let’s take a look at what Johnson brings to the table, divided into categories.
Johnson was only 170 pounds when he was first recruited and but has bulked up considerably since then.
At his pro day, Johnson turned heads with a 4.40 in the 40-yard dash, although it was reportedly clocked at 4.26 by one source. He also posted a 34.5-inch vertical and a 123-inch broad jump.
He also posted 27 bench press reps which would have placed him second if he’d been at the combine.
Johnson was primarily employed as a conventional running back at Maryland, although they did sometimes use some two-back sets. He lined up in the slot or out wide at times with the Lions but didn’t produce much from there.
In high school, Johnson also played as a defensive back.
In college, Johnson established himself as a back with breakaway speed, with several long touchdowns in his career.
That speed shows up at the pro level too, as he displays the burst and acceleration to get to the outside.
While he’s not a power back by any means, Johnson finishes his runs strong and will keep his legs churning to push the pile and fall forward at the end of a run.
He also displays good balance and elusiveness and is capable of avoiding and breaking arm tackles.
Johnson’s ball security in college was excellent, as he didn’t have a fumble officially, although there was one play where an unblocked lineman blew up a handoff exchange between him and the quarterback and the ball ended up being knocked loose and recovered for a touchdown. This was Johnson’s only fumble in his rookie year:
Johnson hasn’t been used very much in short yardage situations and many of his 17 touchdown runs in college were on long runs, so it doesn’t figure to be a major part of his role.
Johnson didn’t produce much as a pass catcher in college, as he only had 29 catches in four years. However, he showed some big play abilities with a 12.9 yards-per-catch average in his first three years.
However, he only averaged 4.4 yards per catch over the last two years, including his rookie season, although he did show some ability to be a pass catching threat on this touchdown in preseason.
While most of his production last season came on checkdowns and screen passes, Johnson perhaps has some untapped potential in this area. On this play, he gets a step on the safety via the wheel route, but can’t make the catch downfield.
Despite that drop, Johnson is usually reliable on short passes and impressed with this one-handed catch in college.
Aside from his abilities to contribute from the running back position, Johnson could potentially contribute more from the slot or out wide. His longest catch of last year was a 13-yarder after he lined up in the slot and ran an out pattern, although that was still short of the marker on 3rd-and-17. They also almost connected with him on a go route after he lined up out wide in an empty set.
Johnson doesn’t have a lot of experience in pass protection and this is an area where he’ll need to improve if he’s going to contribute on passing downs.
He actually has more experience as a run blocker on two-back sets and quarterback keepers.
Johnson can help out in a variety of ways on special teams, including as a kickoff returner. He averaged almost 25 yards per return and had two touchdowns at Maryland. At the pro level, he’s only returned three kicks for 58 yards.
In addition to returning kicks, Johnson was also a blocker on the kickoff return unit, a punt protector in punt coverage, rushing punts and on the coverage unit for kickoffs. He had three tackles in kick coverage last season and one so far this year.
However, he needs to be careful not to be too over-aggressive and disciplined in terms of his lane integrity.
Johnson also returned four punts for 48 yards and blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown at Maryland.
Johnson’s vision is impressive. He is a good one-cut runner and will identify and hit a lane hard, but also has the ability to cut back or bounce outside.
Johnson also does a good job in the open field, which is part of the reason he does well as a kick returner. He sets up his blocks well and anticipates in the open field rather than reacting.
Although his vision and patience are good, Johnson needs to prove he has the same kind of instincts when running routes, pass protecting or playing special teams.
Johnson is regarded as a player with heart and character. He is a hard-worker with a positive attitude and no red flags. He’s also humble, often giving credit to his offensive line when he had good games or big plays in college.
Johnson has managed to avoid any serious injury issues so far in his career, although he was slowed by a calf injury in his senior year that caused him to miss three games.
At his pro day, Johnson had a hamstring injury that prevented him from completing the agility drills and he was in the concussion protocol at one point last season, although he didn’t miss any games.
Matt Patricia had said that Johnson was going on the injury report before he was waived, but it’s been suggested that this was because they were trying to dissuade anyone from claiming him.
Johnson’s skill-set would seem to fit well within the Jets’ system as apparently they were interested in his Maryland teammate, McFarland, in this year’s draft.
He’s played with David Fales and Leo Koloamatangi while with the Lions and joined a stable of young backs that had been coached by current Jets running backs coach Jim Bob Cooter.
Johnson actually profiles pretty similarly to Kalen Ballage, although his film and numbers at the NFL level are much more impressive. It therefore makes sense that the Jets moved on from Ballage earlier this week.
In any case, the Jets will still have four running backs on their active roster, so it might not be easy for Johnson to get many touches in the short term.
Clearly Johnson has some talent and the Jets right now are not in a position where they should be passing on opportunities to add players like him. However, the Lions were also pretty loaded at the position so Johnson will have a lot to prove with this new start.
That’s if they can find any reps for him...