When Jakob Johnson arrived in New England last offseason, he was quite literally the Patriots’ last layer of depth: the team picked him up through the NFL’s International Pathway Program, and signed him to a roster-exempt 91st spot. Still, joining the Patriots that way would allow him to work with the team during the offseason and training camp to at least put his name out there and maybe get onto other clubs’ radars.
What followed, however, was quite a unique journey — one that saw its next highlight last Sunday, when the Patriots played the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2 of the regular season.
While the game was ultimately lost 35-30, Johnson again played a big role. Not only did he play half of New England’s special teams snaps, he also was serving as the offense’s lead blocker in the running game again. And not just that: Johnson also was used in the passing game, most prominently on a goal line series in the early fourth quarter. Lining up in the backfield, he was able to sneak through the line to get into the end zone.
The play worked as designed, with the Seahawks defense selling out to stop quarterback Cam Newton from running with the football. This left Johnson unattended, and Newton found him for a 1-yard touchdown — the first of Johnson’s NFL career, and just the second ever scored by a German citizen (the first was a fumble return by then-New York Giants defensive tackle and future short-time Patriot Markus Kuhn in 2014).
“I did not know that, but that’s awesome. I’m sure later on that will sink in, but I’ll watch the film and figure this game out first,” said Johnson during his postgame media conference call when told about his achievement. “I can only speak for me, personally — a loss is a loss. There will be a lot of stuff to get better from on this film. That’s what I’ll focus on, and then on to the next game.”
Johnson’s insistence on trying to get better has served him well so far.
His road to the NFL, after all, was one of many twists and turns. He started to play the game in Germany and later moved to the United States, before enrolling at the University of Tennessee in 2014. Even though Johnson went on to appear in 47 games for the Volunteers, 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.
After one season with the Scorpions during which the team went 2-12 and only avoided relegation — yes, that’s apparently a thing in the German Football League — because of a two-game playoff series, Johnson again tried his luck across the Atlantic.
He applied for the International Pathway Program, received one of the seven spots in January 2019, and once more entered the pre-draft process. Even though Johnson again did not hear his name called, the Patriots picked him up shortly after the draft. He has been with the club ever since, and has made his way from the bottom of the roster, to the practice squad, to the active roster, to injured reserve, and now back onto the 53-man squad.
“He wasn’t able to do much last year after he was injured and went on injured reserve, but he had a good spring this year and had a good training camp and he was able to build off last year’s experience, which was very new for him,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick about the 25-year old. “He came a long way last year, probably amongst the furthest that I’ve ever coached — probably in the top five anyway.
“This year, he was light years ahead of where he was last year in the spring, and that gave him a lot of confidence and gave us a lot of confidence in terms of what he could do, what his skills were and the adjustments he was able to make and so forth. Yeah, he’s continued to progress, although the jumps are smaller now because he’s already made some enormous jumps.”
Johnson may have entered the 2020 offseason in an unfavorable position coming off a year in which he played only four games before being sent to injured reserve due to a shoulder injury, but he established himself as New England’s undisputed fullback since then. Sure, James Develin’s retirement and Danny Vitale’s Coronavirus opt-out have helped him secure the job, but his development has also helped put him in a position to not just make the team but also carve out an important role both on offense and in the kicking game.
So far this season, he has seen action in every one of the Patriots’ games and is coming into his own as the team’s fullback. While there is still the obvious room for improvement, Johnson’s progress especially compared to where he started has been nothing short of impressive.
“He continues to improve and get better and refine his techniques and his skillset,” said Belichick. “He’s a young player that works very hard and has continued to improve.