Another notable addition for the New England Patriots is undrafted free agent inside linebacker C.J. Johnson from Ole Miss. What's interesting about Johnson is that he played defensive end for the first three years of his college career at Ole Miss before being asked to move over to middle linebacker right before his senior season. Let's take a closer look at the new addition to the Patriots defense.
Johnson was a highly coveted and well decorated high school football player, as he played at Philadelphia (MS) High School. Among his many accolades, Johnson was U.S. Army, Parade, PrepStar and SuperPrep All-American, named the 3A Defensive Player of the Year and First Team All-State by the Mississppi Coaches Association as a senior, a top five inside linebacker high school prospect by Scout and the number two inside linebacker high school prospect by Rivals. Johnson was not short on college suitors, as he was a five star prospect by Rivals and received scholarship offers from Alabama, Arkansas, LSU, Michigan, Mississippi State, Southern Miss., Tennessee and Ole Miss. Johnson would eventually choose to stay in-state with Ole Miss.
Johnson played as a true freshman for the Rebels, where he made the switch to defensive end from middle linebacker. He played in 11 games, starting three of them and finishing with a stat line of 32 total tackles, one sack, and one forced fumble in 2011. For his sophomore season, Johnson appeared in all 13 games for the Rebels and started ten of them. He would finish with 55 total tackles, 6.5 sacks, and a fumble recovery. He was named Third Team All-SEC by College Sports Madness and was a Honorable Mention for the Sophomore All-American team by College Football News.
In 2013, Johnson started the first four games at defensive end before being forced to miss the rest of the season due to ankle surgery. He was given a medical redshirt, giving him two more years of eligibility. He would recover in time to play all 14 games in 2014 as he had a stat line of 38 total tackles, four sacks, and two fumble recoveries. Prior to the 2015 season, Johnson was asked to move from defensive end to middle linebacker, which is the position he played in high school. He would play in 10 games in 2015 with nine starts and only missed two games after a torn meniscus in his knee was repaired instead of the projected four to six week time table. He finished with a stat line of 43 total tackles, three tackles for a loss, two sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Johnson was projected to be an undrafted free agent by NFL.com's Lance Zierlein. Zierlein says that Johnson has "good acceleration to the edge...showed rush potential...potential hybrid player...beloved by coaching staff for attitude and work ethic." So, Johnson is another player with experience at multiple positions and is a high character player, two qualities in a Bill Belichick player. Zierlein also writes "he does not have the strength, instincts or hand usage to make sense at inside linebacker without more coaching and experience." So, while Johnson has experience at middle linebacker, it seems that his best position in the NFL might be as an EDGE/defensive end. Johnson is a bit undersized to play either position (6'1", 234 lbs), he has the raw ability and potential to bulk up to become a decent situational pass rusher/emergency inside linebacker.
His best chance of making the Patriots would be an EDGE/outside linebacker with little depth behind Rob Ninkovich, Dont'a Hightower, Jabaal Sheard and Shea McClellin. Johnson is facing an uphill battle for a spot on the 53 man roster with Ramon Humber and Kamu Grugier-Hill also competing for spots in the linebacker group for the Patriots. Johnson has a great work ethic and showed flashes of pass rush ability at Ole Miss, so it's possible that even if he doesn't make the team's 53 man roster, he could secure a spot on their practice squad in 2016.