As we count down the days until the Vikings' opener against the Packers on September 13th, InsideTheVikings will be previewing every single player on the roster. The amount of days remaining corresponds with the jersey number of the player being examined on that day. Today is June 11th, and there are 94 days until kickoff for the 2020 regular season. That means it's time to take a look at a defensive tackle entering a contract year.
Countdown to Vikings-Packers on September 13th: 94 Days
Player Preview: Jaleel Johnson (No. 94, Defensive Tackle)
- College: Iowa
- Drafted: 2017 fourth round (109th overall)
- NFL experience: Three years (2020 will be his fourth season)
- Age: 25 (Turns 26 on July 12th)
- Size: 6'3", 316
- 2019 PFF Grade: 50.6
- Notable 2019 stats: 29 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1.5 non-sack TFL
- Notable career stats: 43 tackles, 4.0 sacks, 1 forced fumble
2020 is a big season for Jaleel Johnson.
The former fourth-round pick saw his playing time increase slowly in each of the last three years, going from 41 snaps as a rookie to 260 in 2018 and 408 last year (37 percent of the Vikings' defensive snaps). At the same time, his PFF grade has gone down in each of those seasons, coming in at a fairly mediocre 50.6 last year. But PFF grades are far from perfect, and Johnson finished fourth on the team – and first among all defensive tackles – with 3.5 sacks in 2019.
That sack production was encouraging given that Johnson had recorded just a half-sack before last year. At 316 pounds, the rotational tackle has been better known for his ability to make plays against the run. When Linval Joseph missed two games with a knee injury last year, Johnson stepped up as the Vikings' starting nose tackle and showed some impressive flashes. His best game came against the Broncos in Week 11, when Johnson played 46 snaps and recorded a sack and a tackle for loss among his six total tackles.
Prior to that Week 11 game, Johnson had 1.0 sacks in his first 515 career defensive snaps. Over his next four games – 105 snaps – he recorded three sacks.
Interior-pass rushing ability was something the Vikings were betting on when they selected Johnson 109th overall in 2017. He had 7.5 sacks as a senior at Iowa, giving him 11 over two years as a starter. As he enters the final year of his rookie deal, Johnson will look to break out in his fourth season with the Vikings, much like he did in his fourth season with the Hawkeyes.
The opportunity is there for a number of players to step up at defensive tackle in Minnesota. Nose tackle Michael Pierce is the only locked-in member of the rotation, and Johnson will be a big part of the competition for the remaining spots. He certainly has more upside than incumbent three-technique Shamar Stephen, but it's noteworthy that Johnson was unable to beat out Stephen for that job last season.
Much like Armon Watts, Johnson could compete for snaps at both three-technique and nose tackle. His run-stuffing ability could give him a leg up on players like James Lynch, Hercules Mata'afa, and Jalyn Holmes if the Vikings want to continue having a bigger three-tech. During his time at Iowa and in the NFL, Johnson has shown an impressive ability to shed blocks and make tackles in the backfield. Just look at this highlight reel from a preseason game back in his rookie season.
Johnson also has a strong frame and solid lateral mobility. This was his non-sack TFL during the Broncos game:
Johnson has the tools, but can he put it all together and earn a bigger role on the Vikings' defensive line in a contract year? We'll find out. If he is able to emerge, the Vikings could re-sign him next offseason and make him part of their tackle rotation going forward. But if Johnson plateaus in 2020, they might turn to some younger options at the position and he may have to seek a one-year deal elsewhere.
On a non-football note, it's been cool to see Johnson speaking out and trying to lead a culture change in the Iowa football program in light of recent events. He was one of several former players to recently shed light on racial disparities within that program.
Johnson, who criticized Drew Brees for his tone deaf statement about anthem protests last week, returned to Iowa City with several teammates and spoke about these issues facing the program and the country.
Johnson also shared a personal experience dealing with discrimination from Iowa City police.
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