If you were watching the Pewter Report live draft show when the team selected Minnesota WR Tyler Johnson, you know I couldn’t have been more thrilled with the pick. Not only did the team select the same player I’d matched to them at No. 161 in my “day 3 dream draft“, but they also took the best player available on my board (No. 62 overall, mid-3rd round grade). Pretty awesome.
Johnson never ran a 40-yard dash before the draft, but he’s clearly not a burner on tape. Nevertheless he consistently won down the field as a receiver at a ridiculously high level in college. His numbers in Pro Football Focus’ draft guide are insane, catching 13 of 18 deep targets (20+ yards) for 485 yards and four touchdowns. If you threw to Johnson deep last season, your passer rating was an absurd 153.9, the best in the country.
The reason for those eye-popping efficiency numbers despite Johnson not having great deep speed? Well, there’s two reasons: No. 1, he’s a quality route runner with good technique, and No. 2, his ball skills, even in contested situations, are among the best in the class. Pro Football Focus’ draft guide has Johnson with 16 contested receptions last season (12th in the country) and converting 66.7 percent of his contested catch opportunities. So 50-50 balls with Johnson end up being more like 65-35 balls, in other words.
So what I’m saying is one of the best vertical receivers in college football just landed in a Bruce Arians’ offense, and one of the better route runners in this class just landed in a QB-WR relationship with Tom Brady. Think that might work out?
Now, Johnson isn’t a special athlete and doesn’t have explosive traits as a route runner, which will admittedly limit his big play ceiling at the NFL level. Despite his weaknesses, Johnson still carved up the Big Ten on a weekly basis over the past two seasons, on his way to 78 catches for 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2018, and 86 catches for 1,318 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2019. He aligned in both the slot and on the outside in Minnesota’s offense, running a diverse route tree with the ability to constantly keep defensive backs guessing at the top of his routes.
Johnson’s best work as a route runner came either from the slot, or on the outside with a reduced split. This alignment gives him a two-way go against man coverage, allowing him to utilize deceptive footwork to keep defensive backs off-balance at the top of his routes.
Normally I’d say receivers do too much dancing to separate in college football, but Johnson hardly wastes any movement at all when tilting off coverage before breaking into his route. I’d almost say that in the NFL his fakes may need to be a touch more elaborate in order to get defenders to take the cheese, as you may not even be able to notice how he forces the corner to open to the sideline before breaking inside on the rep above.
Again, his hips don’t really sell the route fake, but his feet and a subtle club with his left arm force the slot corner into an early speed turn, creating the necessary separation at the top of the route. Johnson almost lulls corners to sleep before smoothly getting out of his route breaks and finding the football.
Speaking of finding the football, that is probably Johnson’s best trait. He may not create the same amount of vertical or horizontal separation in the NFL that he did in college, but he doesn’t have to either. At best he’ll be the 4th or 5th option in the passing game in Tampa Bay, and he’ll never draw anything close to a defense’s top cover man.
What he does need to do is consistently find and finish on the football, as his reliability when targeted will easily be his best asset to the offense. This is where Johnson really shined at Minnesota, coming up with a plethora of high degree of difficulty catches on an almost weekly basis.
There were three throws against Wisconsin that Johnson went impossibly low for, and this was probably the simplest of the three catches (but the only one I had a good angle of with All-22). An underrated ability of receivers is to dig out low throws with defenders closing over their back. This defensive back isn’t that close to Johnson, but there were other reps on tape where it was clear he was unbothered by pending contact.
That fearlessness is all over Johnson’s tape, as my favorite thing about his game is how completely unfazed he is by anything in the catching window. It didn’t matter what the obstacles were or whether a cornerback was right in his hip, Johnson constantly finished on the ball in contested spots.
I literally had to cut myself off from posting more. That last one is probably my favorite, as he beats the press corner at the line of scrimmage then finds and adjusts to the underthrown ball through contact.
Now, all of those plays come on the outside, which bodes well for Johnson’s versatility at the NFL level. The catch is that he rarely gains much separation outside, as you can see from the clips above. The lack of burst off the line of scrimmage and speed through his route is obvious. If you ask him to run a lot of nine routes on the outside, don’t expect a big throwing window against man coverage.
In the red zone that’s not a big issue, as separation is hard to come by there anyway, and Johnson thrives above the rim and in contested catch spots, which will make him a real asset on fade routes (if the Bucs like throwing fairly low percentage routes, but that’s a conversation for another time). But between the 20s, Johnson really benefits from playing mostly in the slot, allowing him to see weaker man coverage corners and more zone coverages, where he excels at quickly finding space, snagging throws and turning into a runner.
When he aligned on the outside against man coverage, separation early and late in his route was a lot harder to come by. That put him in contested catch or bust situations, and sometimes it’s gonna be bust.
There lies a bit of an issue, as Chris Godwin played pre-dominantly in the slot last season for the Bucs, and he’s a far better blocker than Johnson. Johnson is capable of playing inside or outside because of his elite ball skills, but he will likely benefit more from aligning in the slot, which could create a logjam of talent there when you consider Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and the other tight ends the Bucs could use there.
Still, overthinking details like this is pretty paralyzing, as Godwin can win anywhere you put him, and there are plenty of ways to get receivers two-way gos off the line of scrimmage without putting them in the slot. Reduced splits and bunch formations are two common ways that New England works Julian Edelman into his routes as an outside receiver, where he actually aligns more frequently than he does in the slot.
It’s the front office’s job to find and acquire talent, and it’s the coaches job to make sure that talent finds its’ place on the field. Johnson has route-running ability and ball skills that are rarely available in the fifth round, and the Bucs depth chart desperately needed competition for the WR3 role.
Bruce Arians now has an upgrade over Justin Watson and Scotty Miller, and although the two may end up splitting the load with Johnson at times, the rookie should have an inside track to the starting job if he can come to camp prepared and cut down on the drops that sprouted up at times during his career at Minnesota.
There may be very little upside to Johnson’s game, but rarely do you get players in the fifth round who can step in and fill a role on the field tomorrow. As long as the Bucs don’t ask Johnson to be something he’s not, the former Golden Gopher just landed in one of the more ideal situations for his skill set in the entire NFL.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft