Quickness, Production Make Johnson Top Defender

Linebacker is an interesting position for the Vikings heading into the draft. They have a wealth of possibilities and younger prospects, but still no proven veteran beyond the acquisition of Sam Cowart in the middle and Napoleon Harris on the strong side. That's what makes rookie Derrick Johnson, who is mainly a weakside linebacker, such an interesting prospect for the Vikings to consider with their No. 7 overall pick. We get into the numbers and heard from Johnson extensively at the combine.

University of Texas product Derrick Johnson is the top-rated linebacker in the 2005 NFL Draft, according to nearly every ranking around. According to Scout.com, he is also the sixth-best overall prospect, which makes him an interesting candidate to be selected by the Vikings seventh overall.

While the Vikings have a greater need at wide receiver (USC's Mike Williams and Michigan's Braylon Edwards are two possibilities), this draft is deep at wide receiver and Minnesota might still find a starting-caliber receiver with their 18th overall pick. Johnson, however, is the only linebacker ranked by Scout.com in the top 15 overall athletes.

He is one of those football talents that shows extremely well on game day, on the stat sheet, in front of scouts with stopwatches, and in front of the media at the combine.

His game-day athleticism earned him two of the nation's top awards — the Bronko Nagurski Award as the country's best defensive player and the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker. After becoming the Freshman of the Year in 2001 as a true freshman, the awards kept coming, all the way to being a unanimous first-team All-America selection in 2004.

His statistics bear witness to his worthiness of those myriad honors.

In his senior season alone, Johnson had a career-high 130 tackles, 19 for losses, two sacks, 10 pressures, nine forced fumbles (an NCAA season record), eight passes broken up and an interception.

His career statistics are equally impressive: In 50 games (40 starts), he recorded 458 tackles with 10-1/2 sacks, 65 tackles for losses and 39 QB hurries. Since the NCAA began compiling tackle records in 2000, only Rod Davis of Southern Mississippi (526, 2000-03), Grant Wiley of West Virginia (492, 2000-03) and Dexter Reid of North Carolina (466, 2000-03) have produced more tackles in a career than Johnson. Two of those names should ring familiar to Vikings fans, as Davis and Wiley were rookies with Minnesota last season.

Johnson's 65 tackles-for-loss is a Texas career record.

"This past year I rushed the passer more than my three years combined at Texas before that time. I can do it all. I can come off the edge, come through the middle or whatever," Johnson said.

He added five fumble recoveries, 11 forced fumbles, nine interceptions for 195 yards in returns (one for a touchdown), 30 pass deflections and a blocked kick during his time with the Longhorns. Only former Viking Robin Sendlein (12, 1977-80) and Kenneth Sims (15, 1978-81) caused more fumbles in a career at Texas than Johnson's 11.

His ability to strip the ball is something that came from his coach, he said. "Coach Greg Robinson always teaches us to strip the ball. For some reason, every time I try to stop a person, I'm thinking ‘ball.' Just made a way to get the ball out, and it's working right now."

He produce turnovers another way as well. Johnson's nine interceptions established a school career record for linebackers, breaking a mark that was nearly 40 years old. His 30 pass deflections are the most ever by a Longhorns linebacker.

How does a linebacker amass nine interceptions?

"Being in the right place at the right time, studying your film and getting a good jump on balls sometimes," he of the career totals. "I only got one this past year. But this last year I was mostly in the hole, playing the zone by myself. Everybody else was playing man up."

If the game-day stats aren't impressive enough, Johnson continued to wow NFL scouts with his combine numbers in Indianapolis. He was the fastest linebacker there, recording a 4.56 in the 40-yard dash.

While his blazing speed was an asset chasing down plays from sideline to sideline, Robinson also worked to slow him down.

"He saw a lot of things on film. He saw some good things and some bad things, and the first thing he showed me were the bad things," Johnson said of his review sessions with Coach Robinson. "He took 15 good plays and 15 bad plays from the last season and he just went over them with me. He saw a lot of flaws as far as moving too fast. It helped out sometimes and sometimes it took me out of the play. He just slowed me down to make my percentage of getting to the ball almost every time, much better this year. I've gotten into position a lot of times and I didn't get fooled on play-action — a lot more under control. It actually made me pick out the play quicker."

He played 18 games against top-25 competition in his collegiate career, but he also got to cut his college teeth in practice every day going against one of the top-rated running backs in the nation, Cedric Benson, another five-star prospect in the 2005 NFL Draft.

"Cedric helps us all out on the defensive side of the ball, as far as the running backs who are quick, very explosive," Johnson said. "He keeps me on my toes, makes sure I don't slack up, because he'll either juke you or run you over. Cedric's been a great asset and helped me through my career at the University of Texas."

Johnson's top weakness, according to draft experts, is his lack of strength and size. He showed he has been putting on weight when he registered at 242 pounds at the combine, but his frame is still considered a little lanky for a 6-foot-3 linebacker.

He could have entered the 2004 draft and probably been a first-round pick as well, but he returned for his senior season because of the family atmosphere at Texas, and it helped him become a better leader, he said. But football was already heavily entrenched in his bloodlines. His brother Dwight played for the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagle, and his cousin Bert Emanuel played nine years with the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Yet even with that rich, high-level football tradition, as a kid Johnson had to be coaxed into playing football by his mom, Beverly Johnson. "The coach was kind of mean to me when I was little," Derrick said. "I wasn't used to that. My mom kept dragging me out there after class for every practice, because I didn't want to go. It paid off."

It will pay off, literally, in a big way come April 23, when the kid who didn't really start liking football until the age of 12 probably becomes the first defender taken in the 2005 NFL Draft.

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