Few players in recent memory have made as big a jump since arriving in the NFL as Jakob Johnson. A former undrafted free agent who went on to spend a season in his native Germany after his college career at Tennessee, he made his way into the league again through its International Pathway Program.
The New England Patriots picked him up as a roster exempt 91st offseason member in 2019, had hims participate in training camp, and eventually signed him to their practice squad. Two years later, Johnson has 20 games in the league on his résumé and is coming off the most successful season of his young career — one that saw him serve as the Patriots’ fullback throughout the year and play a prominent role in the team’s running game.
For as impressive as his recent rise has been, the 26-year-old is still looking to establish himself in the league. Appearing on German television program ran recently, Johnson spoke about what he referred to as a “next-step mentality.”
“Of course it was great to make the Pathway Program, but you still have to find a team. Then you’re with a team, but you still have to make the roster. Then you’re on the roster, but you still have to perform and find ways how to help the team be successful,” he said.
“I have played my first 16 games in a row, but now the question is, ‘How can I get better? How can I return as a better player next season? Where can I contribute more on special teams or offense? How can I develop my body and make the next step to establish myself in the league.’”
When Johnson first arrived in New England he was not under the radar, but nowhere near it. An impressive rookie training camp and preseason — one that also saw him play a couple of snaps at outside linebacker — allowed him to return via the practice squad, but not in the usual Pathway player fashion: the Patriots decided against declaring him as an 11th practice squad player allowed to be with the team but not play in any games.
Instead, Johnson was a regular member of the developmental roster in 2019 and after starting fullback James Develin suffered a season-ending neck injury was given a shot: he played four games as New England’s new fullback before he himself was knocked out for the remainder of the season with a shoulder issue.
With him sidelined, the Patriots won the AFC East and emerged to the playoffs only to be knocked out in the wild card stage. One year later, and with Develin retired, Johnson took over the lead fullback role and appeared in all 16 regular season games. New England, however, went just 7-9 and missed the postseason for the first time since 2008.
“When you’re on the bench throughout a season and the team is successful, and then it’s no longer successful even though you’re playing a lot, you’re wondering, ‘Is it because of me? What can I do better?’” Johnson said about the last two years. “Those are the areas I address during the offseason, but all in all the positive stands out. Sure, you want to get to the playoffs, but you can only control what you can control. There’s where my focus is at.”
While the 2020 season was a disappointment for the Patriots, Johnson himself had every reason to feel good about it. Not only did he make the team and end up playing 373 snaps on offense and 170 more on special teams, he also scored the first touchdown of his NFL career.
In Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks, the second-year man caught a 1-yard scoring pass from quarterback Cam Newton. The touchdown made Johnson just the second German to ever find the end zone in the NFL, and the first player from the International Pathway Program to do so.
“For me, it was kind of a build-up,” he said. “You’re obviously going through the season and game preparations, you know the plays where you might get the ball — there were some the previous week — and you know the situations when they might get called and you might get a chance to score a touchdown. The difference on that play was that it was clear it would only be called in a must-score situation, directly at the goal line.
“There was no other receiving option on that play than me, so I know, ‘Either you catch the ball and it’s a touchdown, or you drop it and you’ll probably regret it for the rest of your life.’ I caught the ball well in practice, did it again during the walkthrough. When we were at the goal line again during the game I knew we had already used the other goal line plays in our playbook for that week. When [Josh] McDaniels called the play I knew, ‘You have to make that play.’”
Make that play Johnson did. The catch was the highlight-reel moment of his second season in the NFL, but not the only time he popped up on the stat sheet: Johnson finished the year with eight total receptions that went for a combined 35 yards.
Still, the score obviously stood out even though the time to celebrate was quasi non-existent given the situation.
“When the ball was firm in my hands, it was naturally a good feeling, but you really don’t have any time to celebrate,” Johnson pointed out. “In that situation we needed to score some more and went right back to the sideline, and I had to go straight back out on special teams. We lost a close one, which clouds the whole thing a bit, but personally I think it’s something I can be proud of for the rest of my life.”
Johnson is now heading into his third season in the NFL, and is in need of a new contract. He is an exclusive-rights free agent, meaning that the Patriots are the only team eligible to sign him to a one-year tender sheet before the start of free agency on March 17. The move happening appears to be little more than a formality, though, given Johnson’s impressive development over the last two years with the club.