Coming off a disappointing 2020 campaign, the New England Patriots are headed into a pivotal offseason: they need to rebuild a roster that went just 7-9 last year and is in need of some major upgrades across the board. Part of those could be bringing back the players scheduled to enter free agency — and there are quite a few of them.
All in all, 26 players that were with New England in one way last season are in need of a new contract. Among them is fullback Jakob Johnson, who is an exclusive-rights free agent and will only hit the open market on March 17 if not tendered at that point.
Name: Jakob Johnson
Jersey number: 47
Opening day age: 26
Size: 6-foot-3, 255 pounds
Contract status: Exclusive-rights free agent
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 later 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 made his way from the bottom of the roster, to the practice squad, to the active roster — eventually taking over as New England’s fullback and appearing in a combined 20 games over two seasons.
What did his 2020 season look like? After ending his 2020 rookie season on injured reserve because of a shoulder injury, Johnson was an active participant in the Patriots’ player-organized workouts during the offseason. While those helped him prepare for a training camp competition against veteran free agency addition Danny Vitale — the two were expected to fight for the fullback role held by since-retired James Develin for most of the last seven years — the battle was decided before it even began.
Vitale exercising the Coronavirus opt-out clause before training camp meant that the road was clear for Johnson to serve as New England’s fullback in 2020. He did just that, and proved himself a comparatively reliable member of an oftentimes inconsistent offense: he appeared in all 16 games, and was on the field for 373 of a possible 1,011 offensive snaps (36.9%). Johnson served primarily as a lead-blocker in the running game, helping the Patriots’ ground game rank among the most potent in football.
While he mostly operated outside of the spotlight simply because of his role within New England’s offense, Johnson also did take center stage from time to time. Besides his work in the blocking department, for example, he also saw nine passes thrown his way over the course of the season. Eight of them were completed for a combined 35 yards and a touchdown — making him the first participant of the Pathway Program and only the second German to ever find the end zone in an NFL game.
Along the way, he also was a regular contributor in the kicking game and played the eighth most snaps on the team in the game’s third phase: Johnson was on the field for 170 out of 397 special teams snaps (42.8%) and saw action on both return teams as well as the punt coverage and place kick protection units. All in all, his second season in the NFL was therefore another success story for the former draft day afterthought.
Free agency preview
What is his contract history? When Johnson arrived in New England via the Pathway Program, he signed a standard undrafted rookie deal for three years (even though it did not count against the team’s cap as part of the International Player regulations). That deal was slightly altered when he was initially released after the 2019 preseason, and Johnson is therefore estimated by Over the Cap to have earned around $1.1 million over the course of his young career.
Which teams might be in the running? Given his status as an exclusive-rights free agent, only the Patriots are allowed to sign Johnson to a tender sheet before March 17. Considering that that is the expected outcome, there really will not be any competition for his services this offseason. And even if, for some reason, New England decides not to tender Johnson he likely will not generate a lively market: fullback is one of the NFL’s most fungible positions.
Why should he be expected back? Johnson has proven himself a valuable member of the Patriots’ offense and special teams operation, and as such should get another chance to earn the fullback gig this year even with Danny Vitale coming back from the Coronavirus opt-out list. Add the fact that he is still young and playing on a manageable contract, and you get a player who at least should be brought back to compete in training camp.
Why should he be expected to leave? There is really no valid reason from the Patriots’ perspective not to tender Johnson as an exclusive-rights free agent before March 17 and thus expose him to the open market. The only exception might be if the team is fully convinced that he will be beaten out by Vitale or another potential fullback addition this summer anyway. But even that is a relatively far-fetched thought.
What is his projected free agency outcome? Don’t expect Jakob Johnson to go anywhere this offseason. The Patriots are expected to place the exclusive-rights free agent tender on him, which is essentially a one-year, $850,000 contract at his level of experience (he has two credited seasons under his belt). While this does not guarantee him a spot on the roster come September, it will give him yet another shot at earning one.