One of my favorite parts to studying the NFL is how hard it is to look to far ahead. Take for instance the Denver Broncos’ linebacker group. At this time last year Todd Davis was the veteran starter while Josey Jewell was expected to step up and thrive after starting nine games as a rookie. Many in Broncos’ Country were still actively debating whether it was a mistake to trade down from the 10th overall pick instead of selecting Michigan’s Devin Bush.
Fast forward to 2020. Todd Davis remains the veteran but his running mate is now Alexander Johnson, who found his way to playing time after the Broncos’ debacle against the Jacksonville Jaguars in week 4. He made an instant impact against the Chargers, leading me to wonder if Vic Fangio discovered the heir apparent to Al Wilson.
Who is Alexander Johnson?
The former Tennessee Volunteer signed with the Denver Broncos in 2018 after he was acquitted of rape charges stemming from an incident in 2014. The charges led to a suspension from the Vols in November of 2014 and his invitation to the NFL Combine in 2015 was revoked when he was indicted on charges of aggravated rape. Prior to the charges Johnson was expected to go Day 2 or early Day 3 of the NFL Draft, but instead he came into the league as a 26-year old undrafted free agent.
His first year in the NFL he played a grand total of 13 snaps on special teams in the week nine loss to the Houston Texans. 2020 will be his second season under Vic Fangio and Ed Donatell. He played 45 special teams snaps during the Broncos’ 0-4 start to open 2019 and 778 across defense and special teams over the final 12 games.
Quenton Bolles trying to block Alexander Johnson. pic.twitter.com/tX0pRZjs5u— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) May 28, 2020
What does Johnson do well?
We may never know the 6’2 242 lb linebacker’s athletic measurables because he wasn’t able to work out at the Combine or at the Volunteers’ Pro Day. He has a bit of an “old school” body type compared to many safety-backers coming into the league today, but moves better than I expected after watching his 2019 preseason tape. He displays solid athletic ability with solid quickness, agility, balance, and very good balance.
For such a callow player, Johnson shows good mental acuity in the running game. He recognizes what the opponent is doing and shows instances where he’s operating at the same speed as the offense or even anticipating what they’ll try to run. This allows him to play faster than his timed speed and make splash plays.
He also displays good competitive toughness, big moments don’t get to him and he has a knack for finding ways to show up in crunch time. I also found that he has very good play strength for a linebacker which shows most when he’s coming forward to meet a blocker head on or withstand a double.
Check out Alexander Johnson's effort on 4th and 1 pic.twitter.com/igBDA3sVOu— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) May 31, 2020
Johnson is a very good at the point of attack. He looks good diagnosing runs between the tackles and very good taking on blocks and leveraging gaps. He’s a solid tackler who can meet a ball carrier head on without issue. When he’s shooting a gap playside or attacking the backside of outside runs he is very good.
I found that Johnson is good in zone coverage and moves better than you’d expect dropping into space. He does a good job reading the quarterback’s eyes and shows a solid break on the ball. He’s good mirroring his assignments when tasked with one on one coverage and when capping a route he’s physical within the contact window to make their job harder. He displays good ball skills and isn’t going to shy away from trying to get his hands on the ball and will try and work through the receiver to disrupt catches.
This gets overlooked because he doesn’t have gaudy sack totals, but Johnson is a very good blitzer who shows the timing, physicality, and explosiveness to hurry opposing passers.
What are Johnson’s weaknesses?
It’s no secret Fangio’s defense is complicated. Both Will Parks and Chris Harris Jr. mentioned how it was mentally taxing for them to learn and execute, and Jeff Essary and I’ve talked about how handing off assignments was an issue for many players throughout the 2019 season. Considering that, Johnson’s time off and inexperience coming into the campaign it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that he displayed adequate mental processing, especially in coverage.
Another area where Johnson was adequate was against outside runs, where he showed issues with pursuit angles and tackling in space. He overestimated his speed compared to the running back and found himself chasing or attempting a poor tackle.
While Johnson is solid in zone coverage, it’s worth noting that the Broncos considered him their LB2 on passing downs. When personnel packages only had one off-ball linebacker, Johnson was taken off the field for Todd Davis. This happened from when he first became the starter through the end of the season and stems from the fact that he is adequate at anticipating, reading, and leveraging routes as well as an adequate tackler in space.
I’ve mentioned at this time last year that Davis had the potential to thrive in the Fangio system in part because the Broncos’ head coach runs a scheme that does not demand as much physical talent from his linebackers. They don’t need to turn and run downfield in tight man coverage on receivers very often like Vance Joseph occasionally asked for.
It’s a bit simplistic, but generally speaking the linebacker’s job in the 2019 scheme was to patrol the middle of the field, and cover either the second or third threat depending on formation and play call. This meant the assignment could roam from running backs out of the backfield to tight ends or slot receivers. While it’s a bit of a misnomer to simply label Fangio’s defense a “zone D” because there are plenty of man principles mixed in, a big part of the system’s success is tied to how each individual defender hands off to help. This is an area where Johnson could stand to improve.
One thing I was struck by as I’ve gone over the Broncos’ defense from the beginning of the season to end is how big a difference Alexander Johnson made. I’ve talked before about how Kareem Jackson, Mike Purcell, and Johnson are what spurred the huge improvement against the run, but the more I’ve watched the more credit I’m comfortable giving to the latter. Throughout his time in the starting lineup he showed that he is a very good run stopper and a weapon as a blitzer.
Going into year two in his physical prime at 28, it’s probably not realistic to expect him to get faster or stronger. Instead, my hope is that the game slows down for him with an entire offseason to study the system and his tape. That may well occur without his stats being dramatically impacted, but it’d make a huge difference for the Broncos’ defense. Let’s hope he’s up to the task.