Following the NFL draft and subsequent free agency period, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with one of New England’s second-year players.
Name: Jakob Johnson
Jersey number: 47
Opening day age: 25
Size: 6-foot-3, 255 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2020 (2021 ERFA), but currently signed on an international player exemption and not counting against the Patriots’ 53-man roster
What is his experience? Johnson’s road to the NFL was one of many twists and turns. After starting to play the game in Germany and moving to the United States, he enrolled at the University of Tennessee in 2014. Even though Johnson went on to appear in 47 games for the Volunteers over the next four years, however, he did neither hear his name called during the 2018 draft nor the subsequent free agency period. He therefore decided to return to Germany and reunite with his former team, the Stuttgart Scorpions.
Filling the fullback/tight end hybrid role he also played in his four seasons at Tennessee — when he caught a grand total of 3 passes for 23 yards — Johnson established himself as a reliable piece of his new team’s offensive attack. Over the course of his 12 in-game appearances during the 2018 season in the German Football League, he touched the ball 53 times and also saw regular action in the kicking game as well. After the season, which ended in October 2018, Johnson again tried to pursue his goal of playing in the NFL.
He applied for the league’s International Pathway Program, received one of the seven spots in January, and entered the pre-draft process again. Even though Johnson again did not hear his name called, the Patriots picked him up as part of the program shortly after the draft. He has been with the club ever since, and has since made his way from the bottom of the roster, to the practice squad, to the active roster during the regular season.
What did his 2019 season look like? When Johnson arrived in New England as part of the International Pathway Program, he was not expected to make much of an impact: not only did he go undrafted a second straight year, he also joined a team that was set at its fullback position. But while James Develin was a lock to make the 53-man squad as the Patriots’ undisputed FB1, Johnson still left a positive impression on the team’s coaching staff with an impressive performance during training camp and the preseason.
After seeing regular action on the exhibition schedule and playing not just on offense and special teams but defense as well, the Patriots decided to sign Johnson to their 10-man practice squad even though they could have kept him on as an 11th man under Pathway Program stipulations. Doing so would have prevented the team from ever promoting him to the active roster during the season, however, which is why New England instead opted to use a “regular” spot on its practice squad on the de facto rookie.
The decision proved to be a good one for the team. After Develin suffered a season-ending neck injury in Week 2, New England promoted Johnson to their active team. He saw only limited action in his NFL debut — playing two snaps on offense and six on special teams — but played a bigger role from Week 4 on: between that week’s game against the Buffalo Bills and the Patriots’ Week 6 game against the New York Giants, Johnson played 31.2% of their offensive snaps (69 of 221) as well as 19.5% in the kicking game (17 of 87).
He caught just one pass for five yards in those four games, but did prove his value as both a run blocker and a pass protector. Despite his success, however, Johnson’s first year in the league came to a premature end: he hurt his shoulder against the Giants and subsequently had to be placed on season-ending injured reserve by the Patriots. With him gone, the team was forced to turn linebacker Elandon Roberts into an emergency fullback.
What is his projected role? While Johnson did play numerous positions over the course of his career, he is entering his second year with the Patriots again playing the fullback spot. As such, the 25-year-old is in a position to take over James Develin’s former job: Develin announced his retirement from pro football earlier this offseason, and Johnson is a potential candidate to help fill the void and take over what has recently been a vital role in New England’s offensive operation.
What is his special teams value? Johnson’s primary contributions to the 2019 Patriots came in the form of his blocking out of the backfield, but he also was used in the kicking game as well. Playing on the punt and kickoff return units, he regularly saw the field in the game’s third phase. His potential value could extend beyond the two return squads, however, considering that New England also used him on coverage teams during last year’s preseason.
Does he have positional versatility? Even though the vast majority of his snaps last season came from a traditional fullback alignment in the offensive backfield, Johnson does offer some versatility: the Patriots also used him as an in-line tight end at times, and also were not afraid to employ him in the slot and split out wide. On top of it all, he also played 13 preseason snaps last year as an outside linebacker.
What is his salary cap situation? Johnson is scheduled to hit the Patriots’ books with a salary cap number of $675,000 in 2019, but his status as an international player has put him in a unique situation: he is currently not counting against New England’s roster limit and cap, with the team having received another exemption for him (which means that it could theoretically carry 91 men on its 90-man squad). And even if Johnson gets signed to the Patriots’ practice squad, his salary would not count against the cap under Pathway Program rules.
What is his roster outlook? Based simply on his time in the system, Johnson is the most experienced fullback on the Patriots’ roster — one that will have to replace James Develin, as mentioned above. However, that does not make him a lock to make the 53-man team: New England signed veteran Danny Vitale to compete against Johnson for Develin’s old job. Add the fact that third-round draft pick Dalton Keene also has experience as a fullback/H-back and you get a crowed position. Johnson will need to prove himself once again to make the cut, but could again become an attractive practice squad option.