After going two days of the 2017 draft without taking a defensive player, Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer finally got a defensive player he can get his hands on – Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson.
Ranked as a top-five defensive tackle by a lot of reputable NFL analysts, Johnson is one of the best hand-fighters in the 2017 draft class and is viewed as a disruptor that can impact the pocket with pressure up the middle, continuing a process of sustained improvement throughout his college career.
After redshirting in 2012 and being a limited-action backup in 2013-14, he emerged as a starter in 2015, recording 45 tackles, 5½ tackles for a loss, 3½ sacks and a forced fumble. His numbers grew significantly as a senior, posting 55 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss and 7½ sacks – putting him on the radar for all NFL teams.
Johnson said he could see a marked improvement in his senior season due to his comfort level in the defense and learning to simply play his role and not trying to do too much.
“My senior year what clicked was just a matter of going hard and playing for the team – just really playing unselfish,” Johnson said. “It was just a matter of just going out and playing as hard I could every single snap.”
One of the aspects of his game that showed the most improvement in 2016 was his ability to make plays by using leverage and hand placement. Johnson credited his ability to win one-on-one battles to his being an accomplished high school wrestler.
“It helped a lot,” Johnson said. With wrestling, what it taught me was where to place your hands – whether you should be inside or outside, your pad level. It really taught me good leverage as far as getting a good bend in the hips. I feel like wrestling correlated a lot with football.”
But perhaps nothing improved Johnson’s draft stock more than his performance at the Senior Bowl.
For the most part, scouts rely on game tape to assess how players perform against top competition and often that only shows part of the bigger picture in terms of a player’s overall ability. At the Senior Bowl, scouts get to see players in position drills and going heads-up in the practices against some of the other top college prospects.
Few players improved their stock more than Johnson, who consistently won his individual battles and showed scouts throughout the league that he can stand tall against some of the better offensive linemen in the college game.
“The Senior Bowl was huge,” Johnson said. “It definitely gave me an opportunity to go out and compete against some of the better guys in the country – guys such as (Temple guard) Dion Dawkins, who went in the second round, Buffalo and guys like (Indiana guard) Dan Feeney. It really just gave me an opportunity to compete and show NFL teams what I can do against good opponents.”
The Vikings were no stranger to Johnson. He spoke with the entire staff at the Combine, met with Rick Spielman at the Senior Bowl and Combine and met with Zimmer at the Combine.
But, perhaps the most important conversations he had – at the Combine and one-on-one on FaceTime was meeting with defensive line coach Andre Patterson, who clearly gave his endorsement to the pick.
“I’ve spoken with him a few times,” Johnson said. “I’m over-excited. I can’t put it into words. He’s done a great job with guys like Sharrif Floyd. These guys have a veteran defensive line. He’s done a fantastic job and I’m ready to add to it and show those guys what I can really do.”
As he starts his journey into the NFL, Johnson is ready to start proving himself and give the Vikings coaching staff confidence that he can make an impact early on and become a cornerstone of the Vikings defense.
He has dreamed of this day for a long time and his selection is the realization of one dream and the start of another.
“I just want to thank the organization for picking me up,” Johnson said. “I’m excited. My family is excited. This is definitely a dream come true. This is something I’ve waited for my entire life – playing in the National Football League. [The Vikings] made that come true. I just want to give you a huge thank you. My family wants to give you a huge thank you. I’m ready to get to work.”