Coming off a 2021 season that saw them return to the playoffs but eventually come up short on wild card weekend, the New England Patriots have a long list of to-dos this offseason. One of its items is bringing back players who are scheduled to enter free agency.
There are quite a few of them: all in all, 18 players that were with New England last year are in need of a new contract. Among them is fullback Jakob Johnson, who is a restricted free agent and will therefore hit the open market on March 16.
Name: Jakob Johnson
Jersey number: 47
Opening day age: 27
Size: 6-foot-3, 255 pounds
Contract status: Restricted 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.
After 12 games played during the German Football League’s 2018 season, he again tried to pursue his goal of playing in the NFL. Johnson applied for the league’s International Pathway Program, received one of the seven available spots, and entered the pre-draft process for a second time. Even though Johnson again did not hear his name called on draft day, 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. Following James Develin’s retirement in 2020, Johnson eventually took over as New England’s featured fullback and has now appeared in a combined 38 regular season and playoff games over three seasons. Along the way, Johnson touched the football 13 times for 83 yards and a touchdown.
What did his 2021 season look like? Coming off a first full year as New England’s fullback, Johnson entered the offseason carrying the exclusive-rights free agent tag. The Patriots decided to offer Johnson a tender sheet to keep him from hitting the open market, though, essentially signing him to a one-year, $850,000 contract. While that deal did neither guarantee him any money nor a spot on the roster for 2021, it did give him another opportunity to prove his value to the team and the rest of the league.
Johnson did just that: he again made the 53-man roster out of training camp and went on to appear in all 17 of the Patriots’ regular season games as well as their wild card playoff loss in Buffalo. In total, he was on the field for 325 of a possible 1,169 offensive snaps for a playing time share of 27.8 percent. Just like he did over his first two years in the NFL, Johnson again served primarily as a lead-blocker in the running game. He therefore played a key role in New England’s ground game ranking among the best in the league.
Once again, Johnson mostly operated outside of the spotlight simply because of his role within the Patriots’ offense. He was a blocker through and through, working both in the running game and in pass protection, on occasion. That said, he also took center stage from time to time. Besides his work in the blocking department, for example, he also saw six passes thrown his way over the course of the season. Four of them were completed for a career-high 43 total yards.
Along the way, he also was a regular contributor in the kicking game. He ended the season having played the ninth most snaps on the team in the game’s third phase: Johnson was on the field for 200 out of 464 special teams snaps (43.1%) and saw action on the kickoff return team as well as both the punt and kick coverage units. All in all, his third season in the NFL was another individual 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 was slightly altered after he was initially released following the 2019 preseason. Johnson then signed the exclusive-rights tender last offseason to put his estimated career earnings at roughly $1.9 million, per Over the Cap.
Which teams might be in the running? The Patriots can place one of the three available tenders on the restricted free agent: first round, second round or original round (i.e. right of first refusal in his case). If they do that, the number of teams trying to lure him away will likely drop close to zero. But even if Johnson is allowed to hit free agency, only a handful of teams are expected to be in the running. Fullback, after all, is one of the least valued positions in pro football right now. Nonetheless, clubs struggling in the running game in 2021 such as the Houston Texans or Miami Dolphins might keep an eye on him.
Why should he be expected back? Despite his unique backstory, Johnson has proven himself an NFL-caliber player and a valuable member of the Patriots’ offense and special teams operation. As such, he should get another chance to earn the fullback gig this year — especially with no true competition currently on the roster. Add the fact that he is still young and will likely not command top dollar on a tender offer or new contract, and you get a player whose return seems likely.
Why should he be expected to leave? Unless the Patriots believe they can upgrade his contributions through free agency or the draft, or fully trust tight end/H-back Dalton Keene to fill his role, there are no real reasons why Johnson should not be brought back from the team’s point of view. Obviously, there is a chance that another team offers him more money — if he is not tendered or re-signed anyway.
What is his projected free agency outcome? Johnson staying with the Patriots seems like a relatively safe bet, even if he makes it to free agency. The question is whether or not his return will happen via a restricted free agency tender (likely the lowest and thus cheapest of the three) or a new contract altogether. The latter appears to be more likely, and the deal recently signed by the Detroit Lions’ Jason Cabinda looks like a good template for New England to use: Cabinda signed a two-year pact worth $4.1 million.
Will the Patriots re-sign Jakob Johnson?
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