The Vikings have taken up a big part of the offseason headlines with the Kirk Cousins deal. Along with the addition of Sheldon Richardson, those deals alone make this a good offseason for Rick Spielman and company. But, at least nationally, a few significant losses have slipped through the cracks.
Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen both signed with Seattle in the spast week. While their destination is not that significant as the Seahawks are seemingly dumping their entire 2017 roster to rebuild, the loss of both could spell more trouble than the Vikings are willing to admit. Neither is a Pro Bowl-caliber tackle, and the general feeling heading into the offseason was that both were going to go elsewhere. So these losses are not a surprise, nor are they irreplaceable. But the Vikings are now entering 2018 without a disproportionate percentage of their 2017 defensive tackle snaps.
Richardson should provide an upgrade as the starting 3-technique. The question is whether or not Jaleel Johnson is ready to step in to be the primary third tackle.
Entering the draft last season, Johnson projected to be a pass rushing tackle with little upside in the run game. In the preseason, he showed that pass rushing prowess, recording one sack and getting consistent pressure. However, though that helped him make the Vikings’ roster, Johnson saw little playing time during the regular season.
In the few snaps Johnson did play, he had bursts of what made him an appealing prospect. He has active hands, a quick twitch off the line and solid two-gap explosion. Johnson’s power comes from momentum, fiercely delivering the first punch when he gets a head of steam. However, his power is not quite the same in the run game. When he has to take on a block, his anchor does not drop well enough. As a result, he gets eliminated on just about every double team and can be taken out by one-on-one blocks far more often than one would like.
This is likely the reason why Johnson saw so little playing time. In passing downs, the Vikings did not need a pass rushing tackle. They went to the three end look with Brian Robison as the three technique. When Tom Johnson or Linval Joseph needed a spell, Stephen could fill either role on early downs. Jaleel Johnson simply did not show he could hold up over long stretches of drives because his run defense was suspect.
Some of his run struggles are technique issues, things that can theoretically be ironed out. His pass rush technique, quickness and strength are exceptional, so he clearly has the mind and physical traits to succeed. But Johnson’s mentality seems to be “attack the pass, receive the run.” He is aggressive when he can pin his ears back and go after a fixed point, but passive when he has to engage, diagnose and discard.
Which brings us to 2018. Stephen and the other Johnson are gone. The Vikings will presumably look at defensive tackles in the early rounds of the draft, but Jaleel Johnson is likely to take on a larger role this coming season. That does not mean 40 snaps a game, but one or two dozen is not out of the realm of possibility, especially if the rookie is not one of the top five tackle prospects.
There is a lot of upside to like about Johnson, and we have seen him flash it against NFL competition. But he needs to round out his game before he becomes a regular contributor. This offseason and preseason will be a major turning point as to whether or not he has what it takes to stick. If he shores up his run defense, the Vikings may have found a starter. If not, he may never be more than just a niche player.
Johnson will always have a role because of his pass rushing talents. The question to be answered is whether that role will come to fruition on this team.
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