Although Alexander Johnson was acquired on the tail-end of the Vance Joseph era, the linebacker has flourished under Vic Fangio. The Denver Broncos signed Johnson as a college free agent back in 2018 where he bounced back and forth from the practice squad to the active roster.
In training camp 2019, Johnson made his move up the depth chart and would go on to unseat Josey Jewell as the starter next to Todd Davis. Johnson started 12 games in Fangio's first year and exceeded expectations.
From the outside looking in, anyway.
Last year, Johnson took a step back instead of a leap forward after his encouraging 2019 body of work. His high-impact plays were few and far between and was too often out of position with his run fits and in coverage.
The raw talent the 6-foot-2, 255-pound linebacker has is undeniable. What Coach Fangio wants to see is Johnson polish those still rough edges to become a true gem at linebacker.
On Monday, as the Broncos reconvened for another round of OTAs, Fangio provided an anecdote about how there are two different types of players in the NFL: those who listen too much to the coaches and those who freelance too much.
When the subject of Johnson came up later in Fangio's presser, the coach was quick to classify Johnson in the latter category.
“We're looking for him to be more assignment and technique conscious and be a fundamental player," Fangio said. "At times, he can stray a little bit from the exact thing the coaches are telling him to do. He fits into that other category. You don’t want the guys that only do what the coaches say, and you don’t want the guys that don’t do what the coaches say. He's learning towards too much of the other right now in his career."
On one hand, the coaches want Johnson to utilize his instincts out there on the grass and not be so obedient to scheme that he becomes robotic and ineffective. On the other, being too dismissive of the scheme and technical demands can result in a loosey-goosey freelancing that can quickly see a player careen off the rails.
"We've got to get him more dialed in," Fangio continued. "When he does, and when we find that happy medium, he'll even be a lot better.”
Make no mistake, Fangio was very aware of what he said on Monday. While I wouldn't guess that Fangio pre-planned this statement on Johnson, when he was asked an innocuous question about the player, he opened up with his blunt, and at times, scathing tone. Fangio is sending a message to Johnson, which came on the heels of another not-so-subtle missive just a month ago when the Broncos drafted Ohio State's Baron Browning in the third round.
Johnson is playing on a restricted free-agent tender, which means this is a potential walk year for him. Jewell — the other presumptive starter at inside linebacker — is also entering the final year of his contract. In each of the past two drafts, the Broncos have brought in a linebacker to preempt the future loss of one or both starters.
In 2020, it was Justin Strnad in the fifth round and Browning this year. In tandem with Fangio's direct message, it's a cue for Johnson to really toe the line and try his best to execute his coaches' vision on the field.
If he does that, sky's the limit for Johnson, who led the Broncos last year with 124 combined tackles (72 solo). He threw in four tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles, and a sack for good measure, while Jewell totaled 113 combined tackles (67 solo), five tackles for a loss, and two sacks.
Though the Broncos' starting linebacker duo was unspectacular last year, they were solid and reliable. Neither missed a start and that's worth something in today's NFL.
Because Johnson's NFL career was delayed by nearly five years, he's entering his age-30 season as just a fourth-year guy. That means the clock is ticking and he's got to make hay while the sun still shines because that cliff that Father Time presides over could come barreling down at any point from here on out.
Follow Chad on Twitter @ChadNJensen.
Subscribe to Mile High Huddle on YouTube for daily Broncos live-stream podcasts!