And this may be the first you've heard of him.
it small-school bias or simple oversight, but it's hard to understand how
a player with all of Johnson's accomplishments can go unnoticed. If pundits
aren't talking about
I caught up with Johnson, he was calling from the airport on a Sunday afternoon
-- waiting for a flight to
22-year-old Johnson was born in
surprise was that Johnson wasn't heavily recruited out of Rison, and the evaluation
of one early possible college was a real head-shaker. "I was recruited
After redshirting in 2003, he saw the field in 2004 as a free safety. "There's a little more responsibility -- there are more keys to read," he said, when asked about the transition to the college level. "The game's a little bit faster, but I was comfortable with the transition. You have to play fundamentally sound (all the time)."
The stats bore out his comfort level. Johnson won Freshman All-American honors from the College Sports Report with 94 tackles and four interceptions. A move to strong safety in 2005 just increased the accolades, though Johnson doesn't necessarily attribute this to a position switch. " I just progressed as a player. Strong or free safety, I was making the same plays, but I just progressed as a player. I actually thought I did better in the freshman year that other years I played."
did, however, put up perhaps his most impressive game to date -- a 25-tackle
and 2007 saw Johnson's teams facing some tough competition, and he was up
for the challenge. In his senior season, he really turned some heads with
the end of his collegiate career, Tyrell Johnson had put together a resume
that should have overcome the lack of recognition afforded to most small-school
players. But as Johnson said, "You have to work twice as hard as the
What about the impression that competition against supposedly inferior talent is cause for concern when rating a draft-eligible player? I've never understood why people knock the level of competition," Johnson said. "I've played against the big schools, like you said, and every year, we're playing two or three of the Top 25 teams. That takes a lot out of you.
"The biggest difference to me is the depth that the bigger schools have, especially among the defensive and offensive lines. The skill positions might be the same, but while their second or third string might be just as good as their first string -- at a smaller school, there's a big dropoff if the first-string (player) gets hurt."
Cosell told me that the level of competition a player faces
is far less relevant that one might expect when analyzing players. "I
watch NFL coaching tape all the time," he said. "When I watch a
guy play, I'm watching for attributes and traits that project and transition
to the NFL. The nature of the opponent is not important to me. If I see really
good lateral quickness, or really good range or speed, I can transition a
guy to the NFL. And I think that Tyrell Johnson has the attributes to be a
quality starting safety in the NFL. After watching Johnson more today, and
having seen (
believe he's the best safety in this draft. He can play deep, as a single
high safety or in a two-deep shell, or he can play in the box. That's where
he played the majority of the time when
"He's very smooth and fluid as an athlete. He plays with excellent balance and body control, which is very important for a safety when he's trying to come up and make tackles. So many safeties just fly up, and they don't make the tackle, because they're out of control. I thought he was extremely good playing downhill from a deep safety position -- he was always in position to tackle. His speed stood out in terms of pursuit. He showed sideline-to-sideline range when he was tracking ballcarriers and running them down. He covered a lot of ground effortlessly."
As a bit of a hybrid safety who has played strong and free positions in different coverages, Johnson says that the big hit and the pass breakup are equally thrilling. "A big hit is like a slam dunk -- you automatically get juiced up for that. But a nice-looking layup, or a finger roll, that's like a good pass defense. It's about the same to me."
In certain coverages, safeties have to be extremely versatile in their responsibilities, and that's what Johnson experienced much of the time. "If a receiver went off motion, or a tight end flipped, instead of running all the way across the field, me and the other safety (FS Khayyam Burns) would just switch responsibilities. It's interchangeable -- we learned both positions."
Cosell concurred when asked about Johnson's versatility, but added that he's probably a better downhill player at this point. "He's better moving forward than playing over the top. He was (playing as) a two-deep safety (at certain times), and there were a couple of plays in which it was evident that he needs some work on recognition and reaction. My guess is that he hasn't played as much two-deep as he has down near the line of scrimmage. He was much more instinctive reading things in front of him than he was playing the pass over the top.
"He did align over the slot in coverage at times, and he has the physical attributes to play man coverage over the slot against bigger receivers. He's not going to line up in the slot and play against super-quick guys, but he can play man coverage against bigger, less sudden slot receivers. He needs technique work in that area, but everyone who comes into the NFL needs technique work."
impressed yet again at the Scouting Combine, leading all safeties tested with
27 bench press reps at 225 pounds and a 10'7" broad jump. He finished
in the top five in the 40 (4.42) and vertical jump (32") as well. Even
here, Johnson was out to prove a point. "It was special -- it was chaos,"
he said of his Combine experience. "They set it up to see who can handle
everything; not getting enough sleep, other excuses not to step up and perform.
"I thought I handled it pretty well -- put up big numbers, which I'd been trained to do. A lot of people were knocking my speed. I knew I had to run fast, because some people were saying that I don't play as fast as my speed. I don't know what they're talking about, because I'm fast! I should have run a 4.3, because a lot of people think I'm a 4.5 guy, but I'm a 4.3 guy. I guess when you watch the film and I'm doing a lot of stuff where it doesn't look fast ... I don't know. I had to prove that I was faster than what the stereotype was."
Though his numbers were impressive, Johnson wasn't happy with the vertical. "I only jumped 32 at the Combine, but I jumped a 39 at my Pro Day, and I usually jump a 38. That disappointed me the most. I heard them talking about the vertical jump being messed up somehow. I wasn't going to get into it too much, because I knew that I had another chance to prove myself at my Pro Day. I knew I could jump higher than that, so I just kept it to myself and proved it."
The next thing to prove is that he can be a quality player at the NFL level. NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst Rob Rang, who included Johnson on his "Rang's Gang" all-star team this year, agrees with Cosell's positive assessment about Johnson's future prospects. He added a thing or two about Johnson's underrated status.
"Despite earning Sun Belt Conference first team honors three years in a row and winning conference Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2007, the most high profile all-star game Johnson was invited to was the Hula Bowl," Rang wrote. "Scouts characterized Johnson as an instinctive player with only average athleticism. While he impressed at the Hula Bowl, it wasn't against the elite talent needed to ease scouts' concerns about his level of competition. In his only opportunity to compete against the elite -- at the Combine -- Johnson may have posted the most impressive (and least talked about) workout of the year. Every year there is a 'surprise' second-round pick or two… Johnson is a candidate for such honors."
In Cosell's mind, Johnson may have already left the "sleeper" label behind. Breakout status could be next, and it would not surprise him if Johnson was a late first- or early second-round pick.
As for the young man himself, Tyrell Johnson's racking up the frequent flyer miles, making sure to give back -- he's a firm believer in stepping up for those who need help -- and thinking about what will make him a difference-maker in the NFL. "I have the physical tools and the mental tools, and the willingness to prepare myself. I think that translates well to the NFL. Just like in college, I'm looking to help a team right away with my willingness to prepare and my will to win."
that you've heard of Tyrell Johnson, prepare to see him. Every Sunday.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, a staff writer for Football Outsiders, and he writes NFL previews for the New York Sun. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.