It was just eight snaps, but for Jakob Johnson they represented the fulfillment of a life-long dream of playing in the NFL. It certainly was not an easy road to get there. After spending his college days at the University of Tennessee, Johnson neither heard his name called during the 2018 NFL draft nor the subsequent free agency period. He therefore returned to his native Germany to spend the season with the GFL’s Stuttgart Scorpions.
Filling the fullback/tight end hybrid role he also played during his four seasons at Tennessee, Johnson established himself as a reliable piece in his new team’s offensive attack — one that did it all: he served as a ball carrier and receiver, and also saw regular action on special teams. And while the Scorpions were one of the worst teams in Germany in 2018, Johnson did enough to earn a spot on the NFL’s International Pathway Program.
A few months later, he joined the New England Patriots as one of the teams that participated in the program this season. According to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who spoke about the fullback on a conference call on Monday, however, the team would not have added Johnson had it not been for the league’s developmental program and for the recommendations of his former head coach, Butch Jones.
“He was not on our radar, I don’t think we ever would have signed him,” said Belichick. “When the players were listed, there were a group of players that fell into this category, and we looked at that group. It was kind of like, ‘Is there anybody here you want?’ Based on some research and follow-up at Tennessee, Butch recommended him to me. We didn’t really know much about the other guys, and I can’t say that we were excited to have him.”
“But based on what Butch said, it felt like he was a good player to work with, would work hard, would really try to get better, was a good teammate, and all those things that he showed at Tennessee,” he added. Johnson certainly showed his raw developmental skills during the spring and later on in training camp and preseason: while the longest of shots to make New England’s deep roster, he made the most out of his limited opportunities.
“I would say he definitely started out as the 91st player on the roster and had a long, long, long way to go back in the spring,” said Belichick. “I don’t think anyone ever envisioned him being on the roster or even being on the practice squad, to tell you the truth. But he continued to get better and certainly his physicality and his toughness showed up in the preseason games and the preseason practices.”
The Patriots did part ways with Johnson during roster cutdowns and with veteran James Develin firmly entrenched as the team’s fullback. However, the 24-year-old returned to the team via its practice squad after not getting claimed on the waiver wire. As part of the Pathway Program he would have been given a practice squad exempt 11th spot and the opportunity to continue working within the league’s premier franchise but not getting promoted to the active team. The Patriots decided against this, however, and used one of their regular spots on him instead.
This, in turn, gave him a chance to show his abilities in an actual NFL game came against the New York Jets on Sunday. With Develin out because of a neck injury, the Patriots opted to promote Johnson to their 53-man roster. Not only that, but he actually made the game-day roster before playing the eight snaps mentioned above: he was used in the kicking game on six snaps, and part of New England’s victory formation for two more.
Johnson certainly appreciated the opportunity, as he said in the locker room after the game: “Well, it is something you kind of worked for for your entire life. If you walk this path and as a child come up with the idea of ‘Okay, I want to play football and want to see how far I can get’ it is a huge moment when you run through the tunnel, it’s dark, there’s smoke, you hear the music and the people in the stadium, when you feel like a gladiator.”
“He steadily worked his way into the backup fullback role,” said Belichick about Johnson on Monday. “I wouldn’t say it was quite a Steve Neal rise, but somewhere in that neighborhood. What he’s done has been remarkable in a relatively short period of time. He works extremely hard, he’s one of the first players here every morning. He puts literally every ounce of energy into this job and into our team and he’s totally earned everybody’s respect for that.”
Belichick comparing Johnson with former Patriots guard Stephen Neal is certainly noteworthy and can be seen as a compliment. After all, Neal also joined the club in unique fashion: he did not play football in college — he was part of Cal State Bakersfield’s wrestling team — but nevertheless went on to start 93 games for New England between 2001 and 2010. Johnson, of course, has to get to that level yet.
So far, however, Belichick seems to be quite happy about the youngster’s development since joining the Patriots during the offseason: “He’s a young player, he’s got a long way to go. There’s a lot of room for improvement but he works very hard at it.”