Thursday, April 18, 2013
RB Johnson has versatility, value
By Steve Muench
Draft analysts -- including yours truly -- always seem to focus on first-round talents, with their awesome physical tools and lofty expectations. Fans want to know who might fit in with their favorite teams and how they could help fuel a Super Bowl run.
Hitting on those players is imperative, but it's proven every year that successful teams will also find help on Days 2 and 3 of draft weekend. So with that in mind, let's take a closer look at a Day 3 prospect who isn't generating top-tier buzz but could still make an impact at the next level.
A scandal that grabbed national headlines and subsequent coaching change, coupled with a disappointing 4-8 season, didn't help Arkansas RB Dennis Johnson garner national attention during the season.
Johnson was lost in the shuffle playing on an offense that includes five legitimate draft prospects, including an early-round quarterback in Tyler Wilson and fellow running back Knile Davis. Finally, earning a Tiki Barber-like reputation for fumbling doesn't help.
Still, Johnson could turn into a better pro than college player, and here's what makes him a Day 3 prospect to keep an eye on.
Johnson doesn't have the elite size-speed combo his running mate Davis showed at the NFL combine. Johnson is undersized at 5-foot-7.5 and 196 pounds, and without a combine invitation, he didn't get a chance to run on the same track and show teams he can compete with the top backs in this class.
It's not all bad, though. His low center of gravity and ability to hide behind blockers are advantages. He's not quite as thick in the lower body as a player like Jacksonville Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew, but Johnson he has tree trunks for legs. In terms of his speed, he reportedly ran the 40-yard dash in the high 4.4-second range at Arkansas' pro day. If he had run that time in Indianapolis, it would have been a top-five time for running backs.
Dennis Johnson's strong frame and versatility could make him an asset in the NFL.
We at Scouts Inc. consider ball security part of competitiveness for running backs, the logic being that backs can't compete if they can't hold on to the ball. Johnson fumbled 3.04 percent of his total career touches, joining Davis as the only 2013 prospects to come in above three percent.
It's a fixable issue, however, and the key is pressure points. Keeping the ball tighter to his frame when he gets into space is an issue. Remember, Barber improved his ball security late in his career.
Just as importantly in this category, Johnson's effort is excellent. He keeps churning his legs on contact and makes defenders earn it whenever he has the ball in his hands.
This is arguably Johnson's greatest strength. A decisive runner with an above-average blend of patience and aggressiveness, he reads his blocks well and gets downhill as soon as he locates a seam. A lack of height hinders his ability to read linebackers, but he has a good feel for second-level flow, and he can make defenses pay for overpursuing. There are times when Johnson is too quick to cut back, but more often than not, he gives blockers time to get into position.
He doesn't show the ability to string together ankle-breaking moves in space like Barry Sanders, and Johnson won't accelerate and run away from NFL pursuit like Kansas City's Jamaal Charles. On the other hand, he makes sharp and violent initial cuts, so he can shake defenders in the hole, cut back and bounce runs outside after pressing the line of scrimmage. He's also quick enough to turn the corner as a runner and produce after the catch as a receiver.
He's not a hammer who can run over defensive backs in space or push the pile in short-yardage situations like San Francisco's Frank Gore, but this area is where Johnson's lower center of gravity and thick lower body come into play. His balance coupled with his effort makes him tougher to tackle than his size would suggest, and he picks up plenty of yards after contact.
Let's start with the obvious. Johnson is a small target, especially when you factor in his 28-inch arms and below-average vertical jump of 32⅝ inches. But that doesn't mean he can't contribute to third down. In fact, it's one of his strengths. His ability to change directions quickly makes it tough for linebackers to stay with him in man coverage, and he flashes the ability to develop into a crisp short-to-intermediate route runner.
He has an average hand span (9.2) for the position despite his diminutive frame, and he catches the ball well. In terms of pass protection, Johnson's size raises concerns about his ability to anchor. He masks that weakness with smarts, aggressiveness and toughness, much like another undersized back in former New England Patriots player Kevin Faulk.
NFL comparison and possible fit
San Francisco's Kendall Hunter is an effective complement to Gore and a fairly accurate comparison for Johnson. There are also enough similarities in terms of frame, determination and return ability to mention New Orleans RB Darren Sproles as a possible comparison. It's far from a perfect match, though, though because Sproles is considerably more dangerous in space, and he is a far more polished receiver.
As for fits, the Arizona Cardinals signed Rashard Mendenhall and it's too early to give up on talented 2011 second round pick Ryan Williams, but both are coming off season-ending knee injuries and last season was not the first time either landed on injured reserve.
With the Cardinals cutting Beanie Wells and LaRod Stephens-Howling, they would be wise to add depth and competition. Adding Johnson in the fifth would achieve that goal and give them a player capable of competing for the kickoff return role as well.