The 2020 NFL Draft boasts one of the best wide receiver classes in recent memory. And while players like Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, and Henry Ruggs III are getting all the hype, there will be starting-caliber prospects available much later on. One of those players is Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson, a productive senior who may end up being better in the NFL than he was in college.
Johnson played quarterback and defensive back at North Community High School, but switched to WR after enrolling at Minnesota. Despite his inexperience at the position, Johnson was able to carve out a role as a sophomore, catching 35 passes for 677 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. Over the next two seasons, he was one of the most productive receivers in college football.
In 2018, Johnson finished with 78 grabs for 1,169 yards and 12 scores. He followed that up with 86 catches for 1,318 yard and 13 TDs. Given his greenness at WR, Johnson’s production is quite impressive, and bodes well for his NFL future.
Pending official Combine numbers, Tyler Johnson is listed at 6’2″ 205lbs. Certainly not elite size, but he is by no means small. On paper, he does have the physical tools to play both in the slot and on the boundary.
Johnson is not a burner, and isn’t as fast as his teammate Rashod Bateman (who could be a first-round pick next season), but he isn’t slow either. This isn’t a Kelvin Harmon situation where the player just isn’t fast enough to separate at the NFL level. Johnson won’t be a consistent deep threat, but he is capable of winning deep. There is a minimum speed threshold for most NFL WRs, and Johnson meets it.
Johnson has strong and reliable hands. He plucks the ball out of the air with ease, even on poor throws. He makes it look easy. His catch radius is excellent; as long as he can touch it, he can pull it in.
When contested, Johnson excels. He can make catches through contact, especially in the red zone, where he provides a great jump ball target. The issue is that he is put in a position where a catch is contested quite often; this means he isn’t creating all that much separation, as is mentioned later on.
When Johnson does get to the second level of the defense, he is adept at tracking the ball, whether he’s in a full spring down the field, or jumping for a sailing throw on a comeback. He has such a natural feel for it, despite having only four years as a WR.
The results aren’t always there, but Johnson does give effort in the run game. However, if you’re giving blocking ability serious consideration when evaluating a WR, you’re doing it wrong. A good blocking WR is great to have, but you don’t draft a WR because of his blocking ability like you might a tight end.
Tyler Johnson’s transition from QB and DB to WR has been nothing short of impressive. Pro Football Focus has Johnson as their highest-graded WR in the FBS, which is a major accomplishment especially considering his inexperience. There are some issues with Johnson’s game, as will be explained, but the potential is there. If an NFL team can coach out some of his kinks, Johnson could end up being a very good player.
Minnesota WR Tyler Johnson is definitely a name that could rise among the potential loaded 2020 WR class.— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) May 2, 2019
Very intriguing prospect. pic.twitter.com/01oRjfcvTL
Johnson’s inexperience really shows in this area. He takes far too many extra steps, both off the line and at the top of his routes, leading to his routes taking far too long to develop. His go-to separation creator is a stutter-step, which works fine against man coverage, but in press, not so much. Johnson needs a ton of refinement in his route running, which is his biggest obstacle to NFL success.
While Johnson is fast enough, his quickness and burst is pushing the line. No one is asking him to be Jerry Jeudy, but the agility drills at the NFL Combine should be very interesting, whether he decides to do them or not.
The previous point goes hand-in-hand with this one. Johnson is fine against zone coverage, when he has a cushion of space to work with off the snap and can find holes in the coverage. But when defenders press him on the line and get their hands on him, he struggles to create separation. Whether it’s a lack of strength, poor technique, or something else, Johnson absolutely has to get better here. Getting with a good WR coach and learning better footwork and hand technique can help tremendously.
Not a great tackle-breaker
Tyler Johnson is solid after the catch, and it’s easy to see his QB background when he’s running with the ball. But while he can generate extra yardage, he won’t do it by running through people. Usually once a defender gets their hands on Johnson, he’s going down. It would be nice to see Johnson pack on a few pounds and get stronger so he can break off some big gains.
Best in the slot
Due to some of the weaknesses described earlier, Johnson’s best fit in the NFL may be as a big slot. He would likely face less press coverage there, and he wouldn’t be counted on to take the top off of defenses. There’s nothing wrong with being a slot receiver, but NFL teams are always in search of a legit #1 option on the outside, and value those players higher.
I tend to shy away from making player comparisons, as each player is different and each develops in a different way, but there are quite a few similarities between Johnson and New Orleans Saints All-Pro Michael Thomas. Both were productive in college but raw coming out. Both have similar frames, and neither is ridiculously fast.
Thomas was able to develop his route-running ability to an extreme degree, and has become one of, of not the best WR in the NFL. Expecting Johnson to do the same is completely unfair, but he has very good potential. If he can improve against man coverage, Johnson can be a very solid #2 WR as a rookie. That’s not bad at all for a player currently being mocked anywhere from the second to the sixth round. It will be interesting to see how NFL teams view him.