With the offseason workout program and mandatory minicamp in the books, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 90 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September 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 bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series continues with fullback Jakob Johnson.
Name: Jakob Johnson
Jersey number: 47
Opening day age: 26
Size: 6-foot-3, 255 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 RFA)
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 399 special teams snaps (42.6%) 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.
What is his projected role? While Johnson did play numerous positions over the course of his career, he is entering his third year with the Patriots again playing the fullback spot. As such, the 26-year-old will again serve as a lead blocker in the running game, occasional receiver out of the backfield, and possible short-yardage ball-carrier. While his spot on the roster is not set in stone, Johnson will likely be used very much the same way he was in 2019 and 2020.
What is his special teams value? Johnson’s most prominent contributions to the Patriots over his first two years in the system came in the form of his blocking out of the backfield (and his receiving touchdown against Seattle), but he also was used in the kicking game as well. In 2020, for example, he saw a higher share of snaps on special teams than offense: Johnson was used on both kickoff and punt return teams and aligned as a protector on the punt coverage squad and field goal/extra point kicking units.
Does he have positional versatility? Even though the vast majority of his snaps the last two seasons 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 — thus moving him around much like former fullback James Develin. On top of it all, he also played 13 preseason snaps as an outside linebacker in 2019.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the offseason as an exclusive-rights free agent, the Patriots decided to offer Johnson a tender sheet to keep him from hitting the open market in mid-March. As part of this deal, the fullback is essentially playing on a one-year, $850,000 contract this season — one that does not include any guarantees. While this does not guarantee him a spot on the roster come September, it will give him yet another shot at earning one and putting himself in position for a restricted free agency tender in 2022.
What is his roster outlook? Johnson may not be the next James Develin just yet, but he has proven himself a solid contributor ever since arriving via the International Pathway Program. He therefore has a good shot at making the team yet again this season. Of course, that does not mean he will be without competition. Even with Danny Vitale released, the Patriots have a potential candidate on their roster to unseat the incumbent fullback: former third-round tight end Dalton Keene has plenty of experience playing the H-back role, and New England might give him a shot at challenging Johnson this summer. Johnson should have an edge based on his experience, but Keene has a higher upside as an all-around weapon in New England’s offense. It will be an interesting competition.