Over the next few months, we’re providing an in-depth scouting report for each of the Jets’ undrafted free agents. We continue today with defensive lineman Sterling Johnson.
The 22-year old Johnson, who played college football for Clemson and Coastal Carolina, is listed at 6’4” and 285 pounds. He registered 75 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks in his college career and was an all-Sun Belt third-teamer last season.
Johnson was a four-star recruit and the 14th-ranked defensive end prospect in the nation after an impressive high school career that saw him rack up 51 tackles for loss in the 2013 season alone.
After initially deciding to attend Tennessee, Johnson ended up going to Clemson where he redshirted his freshman year in 2015.
In 2016 and 2017, Johnson was stuck in a reserve role and only really saw action in garbage time. He only had 14 tackles over the two years, but showed some flashes in 2017 with two sacks.
Having graduated early, Johnson was eligible to transfer and decided to move on to Coastal Carolina. He started seven games at defensive tackle in 2018, and racked up 24 tackles and three sacks.
In 2019, the Chanticleers switched to a 3-4 system and Johnson moved to nose tackle. He ended up setting career highs with 37 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. At the end of the season Johnson was voted to the all-Sun Belt third team.
Johnson was not invited to the scouting combine but the Jets signed him as an undrafted free agent after he went unselected in April.
Let’s move onto some more in-depth analysis of what Johnson brings to the table, based on in-depth research and film study.
Sterling is currently listed at 285 although he has played at around 300 pounds over the past few seasons.
He has an above average wingspan at just under 82 inches, but his hand size is below average.
Although he didn’t do an official pre-draft workout, Sterling is regarded as athletic with an explosive get-off and good lateral agility.
Johnson played most of his career as a 4-3 defensive tackle, although he did have occasional reps at nose tackle, on the edge or standing up.
In 2019, Coastal Carolina switched to a 3-4 system so he played more reps at nose tackle shading the center and had his most productive season. However, he lacks the size to be able to play as a nose tackle at the pro level.
Johnson shows good hustle in pursuit and will battle in the trenches. He keeps working upfield to get this sack.
However, there were also a lot of plays where if he was initially blocked, he would go through the motions. This was especially the case at Coastal Carolina, whereas at Clemson he seemed to attack more relentlessly.
In theory, this may have been because he was tasked with maintaining his gap within the pocket at Coastal Carolina though.
Johnson has shown that he can handle a starter’s workload. He played over 60 snaps in three of the last six games last season.
Johnson generally graded out well against the run and improved his production against the run in his senior year. He is at his best when he can use his quickness to shoot a gap or burst into the backfield.
At the point of attack, he is quick out of his stance but can get manhandled and driven off the line at times, especially if he faces a double team. He might have to bulk up and add some strength if he’s going to play inside at the NFL level.
He shows good awareness to avoid the cut block and get into the backfield to help blow this play up.
Having shown some flashes with Clemson, Johnson wasn’t particularly productive as a pass rusher in 2018, although he did have three sacks. One of those came when the quarterback tripped over his offensive lineman as Johnson drove him back.
In 2019, Johnson was much more productive in terms of generating pressure, although much of his production came as he was unblocked on stunts or blown assignments. He displays good closing speed in such situations though.
He displays some good power to drive his man back and then get off the block to make this sack.
Johnson doesn’t exactly display a vast array of pass rushing moves, but he combines a decent get-off with an ability to use his hands to try and generate pressure.
On this sack, he gains a leverage advantage with his quickness but uses a rip move to finish well.
In the trenches, the main thing he needs to be wary of is keeping his pad level down when he tries to explode out of his stance.
Johnson wasn’t particularly productive until his final season where he started to get in on more tackles against the run and bottled up some plays in the hole.
He only had a handful of missed tackles in his first three years but had seven last season, as he missed some opportunities to make plays.
On this play, he lets the running back spin away from him in the backfield to turn it into positive yardage.
Johnson didn’t ever really drop into coverage, although in 2019 he had a lot of pass rushing assignments where instead of rushing the quarterback, he would just hang out at the line of scrimmage, presumably as a deterrent to the quarterback trying to take off and run.
On this play, he drops off following the short pass and hustles into the flat for a big hit to force a punt.
He was credited with a couple of pass break-ups due to batting down passes at the line while at Coastal Carolina.
Johnson displays some good play recognition and awareness in the trenches. As you can see, on this play, he extends his arms to that he can see into the backfield and react to the ball carrier.
However, there were times where he didn’t totally play to the whistle. For example, on this play, he gets driven off the line and gives up on the play but had failed to realize the ball carrier was still alive and was unable to react in time to make the tackle.
As noted, Johnson graduated early so that he was able to transfer to another school in the top division without missing a year.
Johnson’s only contributions on special teams have been as a down lineman on the punt rush unit and also rushing field goals and extra points. He had two blocked field goals for the Chanticleers, including this one in a game that eventually went to overtime.
He apparently also had two blocked punts in a playoff game when he was in high school.
As soon as he arrived at Coastal Carolina, Johnson was named as a team captain and became regarded as a leader over the course of his two years there.
While Johnson wasn’t considered particularly vocal, his coaches commended him for speaking up in terms of getting his teammates to trust the system to help get them to buy into what the coaches were trying to get them to do.
He also comes from a winning pedigree, having won a national championship with the Tigers, albeit that he didn’t play much and didn’t see action in the championship game.
Some draft analysts have suggested he lacks a nasty streak, which does seem apparent from some of his film.
He only had one penalty in his college career; a personal foul at the end of a play last season.
Johnson missed a lot of games as a healthy scratch at Clemson but hasn’t had serious injury problems. He missed one game due to an undisclosed issue last season.
Although he was a 3-4 nose tackle in his most productive season, Johnson will fit better as an interior disruptor with the Jets, where he can use his quickness to get into the backfield.
He may need to bulk up if he’s going to play inside against the run and could even see action as a defensive end.
He doesn’t seem to have any obvious connections to any of the Jets’ current roster, coaching staff or front office.
Johnson was a highly-sought after high school recruit who never quite managed to put it together in college. Such players always seem to draw interest at the next level, but it is usually too late to expect the light bulb to come on for them.
Nevertheless, Johnson was stuck behind some talented players at Clemson and did produce well at Coastal Carolina, although ideally you’d perhaps like to have seen more signs of dominance from him.
If he can continue to work on his strength and technique, perhaps Johnson could flourish at this level. However, for now, he has to be considered a developmental project. A practice squad spot may be his ultimate goal.