Leon Johnson: "The Natural"

Leon Johnson joined the San Diego Chargers on Tuesday, aka cut day, and will make his debut in blue this weekend at the "Q" against San Francisco. Fans did not feign their surprise at the move, and now "The Natural" must step to the plate this weekend.

In an attempt to bolster special teams and the running attack, the Chargers signed Leon Johnson on Tuesday.

Johnson was dubbed "The Natural" in college, playing at the University of North Carolina, for his all-around abilities after the Robert Redford character in the movie of the same name.

In August 1996, Johnson's senior year in college, Frank Vehorn of the Virginia-Pilot in Norfolk began a story on Johnson by writing, "From Charlie Justice to Michael Jordan, there may never have been a more natural athlete at the University of North Carolina than Leon Johnson." The nickname stuck with the help of college teammate Malcolm Marshall.

"He may have seen me playing basketball or something," Johnson said. "He just called me ‘The Natural' one day in the weight room and it (stuck)."

"He's a good back," Coach Mike Martz said. "He's very athletic. I think he played close to 50% of the offensive snaps last year in Chicago. He's a good ball carrier and an excellent blocker and receiver. He can even play some FB. He's a big dude. Added to all that, he's a good returner, and he's terrific on all the special teams."

As a rookie with the NY Jets he returned a kickoff 101 yards against Tampa Bay. The run came on the first play of the second half.

"I cut through the wedge. After that, it was use all the speed I have," said Johnson of his kickoff return. "I'm not known for my speed. In fact, I get joked about it."

Johnson also had a punt return during that rookie season. Johnson was one of a handful of players in the '90s to have scored touchdowns running, receiving and returning punts and kickoffs.

Johnson was an all-purpose back for the Jets from 1997 to 1998. After finishing the '98 season on injured reserve with broken ribs, Johnson would go down with torn knee ligaments in the first game of '99 that would end up costing him the rest of that year. He had two major operations, returning briefly at the end of the 2000 season. The Jets changed regimes, and management decided against retaining Johnson. He hooked on with the Bears in 2001 and spent this offseason with the Rams before getting cut this past week by St. Louis.

His addition to the Chargers is twofold. He adds a dimension as a kick returner, which would take pressure off Drayton Florence from continuing those duties and he is an experienced running back.

The health of the secondary has become a concern for the Chargers and they can ill afford losing Florence while he returns a kick. Johnson has averaged 21.6 yards per kickoff return in his career.

What is troubling is the steady decline, especially since knee surgeries. Pre-injury Johnson averaged 24.6 yards per return and since, just 19.8 yards. Has he lost speed or vision? Maybe it has just been an aberration, since his punt returns were a respectable 10.3 last season.

What is important about the signing is Johnson can and will, if he makes the team, be used in multiple roles. No specialists, only "The Natural".

Denis Savage can be reached at safage@cox.net

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