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Deep Dive: Jermaine Johnson
🌟 Good morning!
I have to be honest, I’ve been really looking forward to this one.
When you go through the draft process, there are certain guys that you just like a little more than the next guy. Jermaine Johnson was one of those guys for me, he always stuck out as being better than his perceived draft status would indicate.
Johnson’s journey has been tumultuous, to say the least, and we have plenty to get into with this one, so let’s dive straight in.
It’s not that often that you’ll attend three colleges and end up as a first-round pick in the draft, but that’s exactly what happened for Jermaine Johnson.
2016 was the last time the Jets tried to get an edge presence in the first round, and the selection of Darron Lee out of Ohio State didn’t end very well at all.
The Jets loved Jermaine Johnson through the draft process, I briefly spoke with Johnson following his visit to the team and you could tell a connection had been formed.
When he left the facility he told the Jets to come and get him and that’s exactly what they did.
After selecting Sauce Gardner and Garrett Wilson with their first two picks, Joe Douglas believed that the chance to take Johnson was gone. He said in a press conference afterward that during the euphoria of the Wilson pick coach Saleh tapped him on the shoulder and said let’s go get JJ.
Johnson was an older draftee at 24, and that may have been part of the reason he started to slide. The Jets were on the phones as early as pick #14 trying to move up to snag him but it wasn’t until pick #26 they found a trade partner.
The Jets sent a 2nd (35th), 3rd (69th), and 5th (163rd) round selection to Tennessee in exchange for a 1st (26th) and a third (101st) for the chance to select JJ.
The Early Years
Johnson was born and raised in Eden Prairie Minnesota, it was at Eden Prairie High that Johnson would establish himself as a budding football star under the tutelage of coach Mike Grant.
As a senior Johnson made the All-Metro team selected by Randy Shaver of KARE11.com, on the selection Shaver commented:
“Our All-Metro defensive line is led by Eden Prairie’s Jermaine Johnson at 6’6” 220 pounds. He’s a punishing player and he’s extremely difficult to block. Johnson has 37 tackles including 7 sacks. He’s such a great athlete, and he’s playing some offense now which makes EP even more dangerous”
The offensive side of Johnson’s game came as a big-play receiver, on the opening day of his senior year Johnson caught a 30-yard bomb and then brought down a 22-yard touchdown. For all his playmaking potential on the offensive side of the ball, it was always the defensive side that was going to take him to where he wanted to be.
Despite his obvious talent and success on the field, Johnson was rated as a 2* prospect by 247, and some of that can be attributed to playing in Minnesota. Study recruiting long enough and you’ll notice that players like Johnson who live in Florida would be getting 4* reviews, but Minnesota isn’t regarded as highly in terms of being a hotbed for talent.
So despite receiving the following scouting report from 247 national writer Charles Power, Johnson was a 2* guy…and if this is a scouting report for a guy who’s a 2* guy, I need to go and check out what’s said about 5* prospects.
“Tall, long edge rusher. Still has some room to add size once he gets into a Power 5 strength program. Tested as a good athlete in high school before heading to junior college. Plays both standing up and in a three-point stance at Independence. Shows quickness off the edge with a high-level first step. Capable of shooting gaps inside and winning with speed on the outside. Can convert speed to power with his bull rush. Flashes his athleticism and closing speed in pursuit. Has good hands with the ability to disengage from offensive linemen. Will need to keep developing and fine-tuning his pass rush technique while getting stronger at the next level. Projects as an instant contributor and likely starter at the Power 5 level with the ability to develop into an early to mid round NFL Draft pick”
For all the success achieved on the field for Johnson, success in the classroom didn’t follow. Louisville, Minnesota, Nebraska, Notre Dame, and Wisconsin all showed interest, but that interest didn’t result in offers. The reason the interest didn’t translate to offers was down to Johnson’s 1.9 GPA, which made him academically ineligible to play NCAA football.
To receive full NCAA academic eligibility to play as a freshman, all students must achieve a minimum of 2.3 GPA for Division one football and 2.2 for Division 2 football. The 1.9 recorded by Johnson meant that if he hoped to continue his quest to become an NFL player, he’d have to tread a different path than most.
Independence - Last Chance
Johnson’s detour led him to Independence Community College in Kansas, playing under famous or infamous coach Jason Brown, depending on how you look at it. If you’re a fan of the Netflix series “Last Chance U” you would have seen Johnson starring for Brown and Independence in season 4.
Johnson was a star on the field for Independence, over 20 games he recorded 96 tackles, 12.5 sacks, 11 TFL, 4 forced fumbles, and 3 pass breakups. More importantly for his future and ability to showcase his talents on the biggest stage, he committed to his studies propelling that 1.9 GPA to 3.3 in just 18 months.
The off-the-field work ethic to raise his GPA would open up a whole new world in terms of recruitment. Coming out of high school he had several interested schools but nobody could offer, coming out of Independence he had over 20 schools offering him a full ride as the #1 rated JUCO prospect in the country.
Johnson managed to narrow those 20 schools down to 5 in Georgia, Oregon, Oklahoma, Texas, and UCLA…but Georgia was always the out and out favorite to land his commitment and part of it was just based on how much they wanted him
"Georgia is definitely in the lead," Johnson told 247Sports. "Just how hard they are on me, how much they need me, and how high of a priority I am. Not one coach on the staff fails to remind me how much I am needed, from the graduate assistants to Coach (Kirby Smart) Smart himself. They continue to show me how much they want to coach me and how I am more than just a football player to them."
Sure enough, shortly after releasing his top 5, he chose to sign with Kirby Smart’s bulldogs as part of the 2019 class.
Expectations for Johnson were very high heading into Georgia, and many expected to see him flourish from the start. His coach Jason Brown made an appearance on Georgia themed “Nothing Finer” podcast and when asked what Georgia was getting he responded:
“A first-round NFL talent, number one, that’s what he is. Jermaine’s just got to be consistent on a day-to-day basis on being a first-round NFL talent.”
In Spring Johnson was getting first-team reps along with fellow recruit Nolan Smith (#1 player in the 2019 class). And according to people who attended the spring practice, Johnson was doing more than holding his own.
Georgia writer Jake Rowe said
“Early on, Johnson showed that has an explosive first step and beat UGA right tackle Isaiah Wilson, a guy voted preseason second-team All-SEC by league media last week, multiple times around the edge. In addition to being a great athlete, Johnson has elite size. At 6-foot-6 245 pounds, he's not the kind of guy who is going to be done when SEC tackles get their hands on him.”
His hunger and desire that Spring even drew plaudits from head coach Kirby Smart
"I've seen hunger out of both of those guys," Smart of Johnson and Smith this spring. "They don't know exactly what to do yet but, man, they do it hard and there's something to be said for that. We're going to play kids at the University of Georgia that give effort and play hard and do the right things and those two guys, man, they play hard."
So what exactly happened to Jermaine Johnson at Georgia? So many people I talk to reference his “failure” at Georgia, but I’m not sure I see it that way. The Georgia defense was absolutely stacked and Kirby Smart liked to rotate his defensive ends to keep his pass-rush fresh. During his first year in Athens Johnson recorded 20 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 3 TFL, and a key forced fumble against Auburn while only starting one game.
Between the 2019 and 2020 seasons, Johnson spent considerable time working on his technique, knowing that his raw athleticism which had enabled him to dominate at the JUCO level would only take him so far:
“I think I took a big leap this offseason because I just think needed to be more violent,” Johnson said. “In my pass rush, be more technical in my movements. In JUCO, my athleticism got me far, and then coming here, learning that technique gets you farther than anything.”
“It comes down to technique and will and how much passion you give to the game and how committed you are to the program,” Johnson said. “I just ask my teammates and my coaches what I can do to get better every day.”
He came back bigger and stronger after an off-season where he returned to Minnesota to work on his game, lifting weights his father had purchased in their garage. During the COVID interrupted season Johnson started 3 of 7 games and recorded 4 sacks (tied for 3rd on the team) 11 QB pressures and 5 tackles for a loss. Against Evan Neal and Alabama, he recorded a sack, 2 pressures, and 3 total tackles. He did all this while working through a shoulder injury that limited him.
Was he as productive as he’d hoped to be? Probably not. Was his time in Georgia a failure? No, he developed under Kirby Smart and that Georgia defense and he held his own in the SEC. Knowing that he would likely need to work in a rotational role again in 2021, he chose to transfer to Florida State where he could start every game and improve his draft stock. It was a gamble that paid off handsomely. His father confirmed the reasoning for the transfer the day Johnson entered the portal:
“He wants to be able to use his talents,” his father said. “Jermaine is a Dawg. He would have loved nothing more than to leave as a Dawg going to the league, but you can’t get to the league without film and the constant rotation for no reason, that’s not going to do it.”
Due to the COVID pandemic, the NCAA gave players an extra year of eligibility to play college football, and Johnson made the most of that in 2021. As a senior in 2020, he should have been taking his talents to the NFL, but he knew that he had significantly more talent than the mid-round draft rating he was receiving after the 2020 season.
Within a week of entering the transfer portal, Johnson confirmed that he was using his extra year of eligibility to suit up for the Seminoles of Florida State. After mustering just 10 sacks in 9 games during the 2020 season, FSU were desperate for some pass rush assistance and Johnson delivered that with 70 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles, but he was also able to show another area of his game.
While in Athens, Johnson had been used mainly as a pass-rush specialist on obvious passing downs, which limited his ability to showcase just how good he is against the run, something that FSU head coach Mike Norvell:
“People look through his career, there at his last institution, you saw the pass-rush ability, you saw the impact that he can make,” Norvell said. “The thing I've been most pleased with is his commitment in the run game, how hard he's practiced, the physicality he's shown.”
Johnson wasted very little time in making an impression with his new teammates and coaches. He was named the ACC defensive lineman of the week for his debut outing against Notre Dame. In an overtime loss for the Seminoles Johnson recorded 7 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 2.5 tackles for a loss in the first half of the game.
Heading to a new school is never easy but Johnson slotted into FSU seamlessly and instantly gained the respect of his fellow teammates, being named a team captain in his first year with the program. One consistent theme you’ll see when researching Johnson is that kind of work ethic that fans don’t often see, but that coaches love:
“He understood the expectation and that’s something I appreciated,” Norvell said. “From the first meeting we had, he gathered the defensive line and told them this wasn’t going to be about him. It was about us. It was about what we’re trying to do and the responsibility he held to the guys he lined up beside. And he’s had to live that out. Jermaine has earned the opportunity.”
Johnson took that opportunity with both hands. Following his outstanding season as an all-around defender, he became the first ACC player in history to earn defensive or offensive player of the year during their first season with a program. He was an ESPN and CBS All-American, and First-Team All-ACC. The gamble paid off and Norvell pushed Johnson harder than anyone because he knew just how good he could be
“I’m extremely hard on Jermaine. He’ll tell you,” Norvell said. “It’s because of the high expectation I have for him. This is not something where just because you achieve in one area, the standard lessens. This is across the board and with big shoes comes a big responsibility and that’s what he’s stepping up to each and every day.”
After Johnson completed his outstanding season at Florida State with the ACC defensive player of the year honor. He flew down to Mobile, Alabama to take part in the Senior Bowl where he constantly won his 1-on-1 match-ups, the Jets who were looking for a pass-rusher to play opposite Carl Lawson loved what they saw and the rest is history.
Over the course of his three-year FBS career with Georgia and Florida State, Johnson recorded 75 total pressures and 20 sacks over 638 pass-rushing snaps. That’s a pressure every 8.5 snaps and a sack every 31 snaps…which is extremely strong. Pair that with the fact his lowest run defense grade according to PFF was a strong 77.3 in 2020 and you get the picture of a complete edge prospect.
Heading into the draft, Johnson was given the following scouting report by NFL.com:
“Ascending edge prospect. Johnson has NFL traits and the potential to keep getting bigger and better as a pro. He is a one-year full-time starter with an underdeveloped pass rush and occasional lapses in awareness, but both areas should be correctable with more coaching and game experience. He's more instinctive and consistent as a run defender, but his length and relentlessness are excellent building blocks for challenging protection. Johnson's blend of strength and athleticism should make him a firm edge-setter and playmaker near the line of scrimmage for odd or even fronts. He has the traits, athleticism and talent to project as a top-40 pick with a bright future.”
I didn’t necessarily agree with the above report as I didn’t really see the “occasional lapses in awareness” referenced, but the fact it was marked as “correctable” is encouraging, and the guys at NFL.com would have seen significantly more tape than I did.
Run Defense + Patience + Tackling
May seem strange to start this segment with a clip of Johnson playing the run, but I just love this play from every perspective. How disciplined he is, the strength to hold the tackle at length and out of his frame, the finesse to spin into the lane, and then the tackling to put the exclamation mark on. A lot of pass-rushers in college don’t play the run half as well as Jermaine did in 2021.
There are a ton of clips out there for Johnson’s pass rush, but here’s one that I like because he beats the tackle, he shakes off the running back who comes over to help, he then identifies the QB moving up in the pocket and he stops his climb instantly and takes a good angle to punish the quarterback.
Johnson really flashed his speed when he ran a 4.58 forty with a 1.59 split at the combine, those are elite numbers, especially for a guy who’s 6’4 and 254lbs. But those numbers aren’t just testing numbers, his speed is on full show throughout his college career. This is a perfect example as he runs down a receiver on a jet sweep, holy outside containment batman.
Finally, we come to Jermaine Johnson’s power. Johnson uses a number of different moves to get to the QB, he has a spin move that can be effective against flat-footed tackles, he uses his hands well to rip and he can use his speed to go around the outside…but his #1 move is probably his bull-rush. What better way to highlight power than to show a clip of Johnson using a tackle as a battering ram to get to the QB.