Between now and preseason, we’ll be breaking down the Jets’ undrafted rookies. Today, we break down former UCLA and Miami linebacker Caleb Johnson.
The 24-year old Johnson is listed at 6’0” and 235 pounds and was an honorable mention all-Pac 12 selection in 2020 after racking up 5.5 sacks at UCLA. He had a career high 48 tackles after transferring to Miami last season.
Coming out of high school, Johnson initially went down the Junior College route, as he joined Fullerton CC. In three seasons, he missed two years due to injury but racked up 41 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble in 2017.
In 2019, he was at Texas for three games but didn’t play before finally earning a scholarship at UCLA for 2020. Over the next two years, he started 17 games.
In 2020, he had 44 tackles and 5.5 sacks while also intercepting a pass and earned an honorable mention all-Pac 12 selection. He had 45 tackles, three pass breakups and a pick in 2021.
He opted to transfer again in 2022, this time joining the Miami Hurricanes. He had 48 tackles, four tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and 1.5 sacks.
Johnson wasn’t invited to the scouting combine, but turned heads with a fast 40-yard dash at his pro day. After going unselected in the draft, he signed an undrafted free agent deal with the Jets, including $50K in guaranteed salary and a $7.5K signing bonus.
Now let’s take a look at what Johnson brings to the table, divided into categories.
Johnson has bulked up in recent years, having initially been listed at 205 at Fullerton and 215 at UCLA. He has below average length though.
At his pro day, Johnson ran a superb 4.44 in the 40-yard dash and posted a 126-inch broad jump and 25 bench press reps. His agility numbers and vertical were uninspiring though.
Johnson has always been employed as an off-ball linebacker, but often creeps up to the line, comes off the edge or drops into the slot within that role. He also spent time with the defensive backs group at Fullarton.
Johnson has had some good running game production and can pursue from sideline to sideline or shoot gaps to get in on stops.
He does have a few things to work at though. His play recognition can sometimes be a beat slow and he can get caught up in traffic.
His main issue is that he is routinely taken out of plays at the second level unless he gives up ground so he can avoid being caught up on a block.
Johnson’s primary role in coverage has been to drop into a zone coverage and keep the action in front of him so he can react to short passes. When forced into direct coverage matchups, he can appear a little stiff.
He didn’t make a ton of plays in coverage, with just three passes defensed in his career. He did intercept two passes though.
In his three years at the FBS level, Johnson didn’t give up a touchdown in direct coverage and didn’t give up any 20-yard plays at Miami. Opposing quarterbacks had an 80 percent completion rate when targeting him but that included plenty of dump-offs.
Johnson has good closing speed, generally seems to take good angles to the football and shows an ability to wrap up and drag down ball carriers against the run and in space.
He averaged just under 10 missed tackles per season at the FBS level, as he regularly had ball carriers run through his arm tackles. He also showed poor technique when hitting at times.
He forced two fumbles in his final season and one at Fullarton.
Johnson only had 1.5 sacks in his last two seasons and in fact only blitzed a handful of times in his year with Miami. However, he showed some pass rushing prowess with 5.5 sacks in his first year at UCLA and also had 5.5 sacks in his one year at the JUCO level.
His pressure rate was solid at UCLA, mostly coming on A-gap blitzes or rushes off the edge.
Johnson hardly played any special teams at UCLA but saw action on every unit apart from the placekicking unit at Miami. He made some good blocks on the kick return unit and was in on this tackle.
Johnson shows flashes from time to time with a nice hit or by battling for leverage with a blocker and coaches have praised his physicality. Here’s a play where he surprisingly takes out an offensive lineman on a rush, even though the quarterback gets rid of the ball quickly.
He reportedly worked part time as a bouncer in college, during which time he forcibly enjoyed throwing people out, so you can imagine that he relishes contact.
Johnson has played in a variety of systems with different terminology, and the Miami coaches acknowledged it took a while for him to come to grips with their scheme, but eventually the light came on. Scouting reports praise his read and recognition, which shows up on film against short passes and running plays.
His eye discipline can sometimes let him down and he can be susceptible to being caught out by misdirection, though.
His awareness in coverage is likely to be a work in progress at the NFL level because when tasked with dropping into coverage he made a few mistakes.
Johnson readily admits that he didn’t focus or work hard in high school but had to start taking things seriously when he moved up to the Junior College level.
The UCLA coaching staff praised his consistency and the coaches at Miami said that his experience benefited him when he joined their program.
When he was at Texas and not getting any playing time Johnson opted to bet on himself and enter the transfer portal, missing his third out of four seasons.
Injuries affected Johnson badly at Fullerton. He missed the 2016 season with a groin injury and the 2018 season with a shoulder injury. He then reinjured the shoulder in 2019 when he was trying to get on the field at Texas.
He showed some toughness by playing through an arm injury while at UCLA. He wore a wrap around his bicep.
As noted, Johnson has played a variety of systems and roles in his career so far. With the Jets, he’ll get a chance to show how well he fits their system in preseason, but ultimately his best shot at the main roster would be as a special teamer, and realistically he should probably be aiming for the practice squad.
Johnson is an athletic player who took a circuitous route to the NFL but held his own when he eventually arrived at UCLA and then also did well at Miami.
He didn’t show enough in his college career to get drafted and is already 24, but didn’t play in three of his first four seasons. Just making it to the NFL after all he’s been through is impressive, but he’s going to have to be patient and make the most of any opportunities he gets in preseason.