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2016 Rookie Review: Austin Johnson

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A review of the defensive tackle’s first year with the Titans.

NFL: Preseason-Tennessee Titans at Oakland Raiders Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

This week I am continuing my review of the Titans 2016 rookie class by taking a look at defensive tackle Austin Johnson. If you missed the players I covered previously, you can find them by clicking on the links below:

2016 Rookie Review: Kevin Dodd

2016 Rookie Review: Derrick Henry

NFL players usually make their biggest jump in performance from Year 1 to Year 2. I have mentioned this at the top of every piece, but I’ll continue to mention it because its the primary reason that I wanted to review this specific set of players. These are the guys that you would expect to take their game to another level in 2017.

This is especially true when it comes to defensive line play. D-line is widely considered one of the toughest positions in the NFL for a rookie to come in and make an instant impact. In addition to having to deal with bigger, stronger, faster opponents lining up across from them, they also see much more diverse and well-coordinated blocking schemes.

Using data from Pro-Football-Reference.com I found that only 4 defensive linemen in the last 20 years have made the Pro Bowl in their rookie year: Aaron Donald (2014), Ndamukong Suh (2010), Brian Orakpo (2009) — Orakpo was a 4-3 DE his rookie year instead of a stand up OLB — and Jevon Kearse (1999). Here are numbers for other positions:

QB: 8

RB: 12

WR: 14

TE: 1

OL: 7

LB: 10

DB: 9

Pro Bowls aren’t a perfect metric, but I think this data pretty clearly shows that defensive linemen tend to be slower to make an impact in the NFL. I point this out to show that Austin Johnson’s slow start last season is something that is actually pretty common among others at his position. Even Aaron Donald, the best interior lineman in the league, didn’t get his first start until the 5th game of his rookie year.

Johnson’s rookie year saw him listed as a healthy scratch for 6 of the first 9 games of the season before starting to come on later in the year. Check out the snap counts in the table below.

Austin Johnson 2016 Stats.csv

Week Opponent Snap % Tackles Assists Sacks
Week Opponent Snap % Tackles Assists Sacks
1 vs MIN 16% 0 1 0
5 @ MIA 18% 0 0 0
6 vs CLE 18% 0 0 0
10 vs GB 18% 0 1 0
11 @ IND 30% 0 2 0.5
12 @ CHI 31% 1 0 0
14 vs DEN 34% 0 0 0
15 @ KC 34% 2 2 0
16 @ JAX 44% 2 0 0
17 vs HOU 39% 1 1 0

That shows a pretty clear trend line heading in the right direction. In fact, Johnson out-snapped Al Woods in four of the last five games of the season when they were both active and also appeared to have surpassed Angelo Blackson on the depth chart. Johnson seemed to have finished the year as the third defensive lineman on the Titans roster behind Jurrell Casey and DaQuan Jones.

Most of the conversation around Johnson has been discussing him as a nose tackle, but he actually played very few snaps as a true nose tackle in 2016. Most snaps saw him in either a 3-tech defensive tackle as part of a four man front look or as a defensive end in the Titans base three man front so it is clear that the team views him as a versatile piece on the defensive line similar to Jones and Blackson.

Johnson’s strengths are his play strength and motor. He’s not an explosive athlete as you can see from his spider graph from the combine.

That profile shows up on his rookie season tape too. It’s not a coincidence that DaQuan Jones was the top physical comp for Johnson on MockDraftable, they are very similar players. Jones is clearly the better of the two right now — as he should be as a three year vet — but you could easily see Johnson following a similar development path.

Let’s start our review by looking at Austin Johnson versus the run. This is the strength of his game. Here he is in the first game of the season. The Vikings double down on him with the play side guard-tackle combo but he does a good job of not giving up much ground and fighting his way in to the hole to help make the tackle. Nothing Johnson does is flashy, but he’s rarely out of position.

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Here is an example of Johnson being used as a nose tackle in a three man front. Here he is matched up with Colts rookie center Ryan Kelly in a matchup that we will likely see a good bit over the next few years. This is a wildcat look from the Colts, but Johnson whips Kelly and is there to take away the cut back lane.

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On the next play Johnson is used as a defensive end in a three man front — as I said, he’s very versatile — and he does a great job of hustling down the line to chase down the outside zone run from the backside. Johnson isn’t fast, but he does show pretty good quickness in small bursts which is all you need from your interior linemen.

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Johnson’s work against stretch plays both on the play side and in pursuit from the backside was consistently really good from the snaps I saw. Here he is on the strong side facing another guard-tackle combo block and he does a good job of fighting off the block while scraping down the line.

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Here’s another example. He’s able to run with the play down the line and keep the back from finding a lane.

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Here he is stakcing up a double team again and fighting his way right in to the path of the running back.

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This is probably my favorite play of his from last year. He stacks the Jags right guard at the point of attack and then controls him forcing the back to go sideways and allowing the linebackers to attack and make the play for a big loss.

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Here he is against the Chiefs again. He was very good in that game. This time he tosses the tackle down and then fights through the traffic to make the tackle.

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Johnson is a smart player. He generally avoids blindly attacking and prefers to stack and react as he does on this play. He’s lined up wide here, but rather than simply rushing up the field and taking himself out of the play, he controls the tackle, and then makes the play in what was otherwise a gaping hole.

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Johnson is not a great pass rusher. He has a limited arsenal of moves and generally just bull rushes or tries to punch the blocker out of the way. This is him working against Ryan Kelly again. This is the punch move he uses. This is one of the more effective ones from him, but its just not something he excels at.

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Here it is again. This is the best one that I saw on tape. He does at least get some pressure here.

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Here is the bull rush which is Johnson’s go-to pass rush move. Again, this is one of the better examples of it as he gets some push and helps keep Osweiler trapped in the pocket so the blitzing Daimion Stafford can get home.

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Here is his half-sack that many of you will remember as the play that concussed Andrew Luck and knocked him out for the Colts Thanksgiving game against Pittsburgh. Of course Luck wasn’t evaluated for a concussion during the game allowing him to help the Colts hang on for the win. This play isn’t really all that special from Johnson. He does a good job of taking the center with him to allow Williamson to stunt in behind, but the play is really made by Derrick Morgan abusing right tackle Joe Haeg and getting to Luck’s feet.

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Austin Johnson’s role is to do the dirty work. He’s never going to be the penetrating gamewrecker that Jurrell Casey is, so don’t set your expectation level there. He’s the heir apparent to the DaQuan Jones role in this defense and he should be able to do a nice job in that capacity either as a rotational piece or as a full-time starter if Jones walks when his contract expires after this season.

I’ll be interested to see what kind of tools Johnson adds to his game this offseason. I would love to see a little more juice in the pass rush, but that is likely never going to be his forte. I would also expect to see him be more aggressive as he gets more comfortable in the defense. He was a bit tentative at times last season, especially early on. His versatility will be very helpful for a team that wants to be multiple in their alignments and schemes. I expect him to see an increase in snaps as the first defensive lineman off the bench this season.