In the fifth of many Arizona Cardinals NFL draft profiles, we look at inside linebacker Gary Johnson; a productive player that earned national recognition after playing in the JUCO ranks.
Although the Arizona Cardinals added Jordan Hicks in free agency, they could stand to add more inside linebacker depth behind Hicks and 2017 first round pick Haason Reddick. University of Texas linebacker Gary Johnson could fill that said need as a developmental prospect with high upside.
After starting his college career Dodge City Community College and racking up 215 tackles in two seasons, Johnson earned nation-wide recognition as one of the most coveted JUCO prospects available. He received offers from 28 schools including Alabama, Auburn, Ohio State, LSU, and Texas, and ultimately chose the latter to play as a starter for two seasons.
During Johnson’s tenure at Texas, he played 1,449 snaps, per Pro Football Focus, and tallied 106 tackles, 11 sacks, and 22.5 tackles for loss. He also finished in eighth in the 2019 draft class in PFF‘s category of coverage snaps per target in coverage with 16.95; an outstanding number.
But, no matter how good or gaudy his stats may be, you can’t judge Gary Johnson by them. Instead, his tape does the talking. On the tape, one of his most notable traits is the aggression and tenacity that he plays with. Because of his almost destructive playstyle and ridiculous closing speed (4.43 second 40-yard-dash), Johnson projects as an outstanding special teams player.
However, Johnson also has the game and mind to be a starter or key rotational player as an inside linebacker. He is quick to dissect plays and has shown the ability to shut down the RPO — a popular scheme in the Big 12 and now NFL. While his game isn’t quite yet ready for the NFL in terms of pass coverage, he has some nice building blocks due to his speed, patience, and football intelligence.
As a run defender, Johnson uses that same quick speed and proper gap control to disallow big gains. He’s a downhill player and is often seen neutralizing a play in the backfield. Per PFF, Johnson finished his Texas tenure with 74 total run stops; a solid number given that he only played 1,449 snaps in orange and white.
But Johnson isn’t the perfect linebacking prospect. At 6-0, 226-pounds he’s a tad undersized for the position. While he has the building blocks to be elite in coverage, he doesn’t have the lateral agility to do so now, in turn potentially making him a liability against the elite tight ends. He also often gets stuck in blocks and has a tackling form that’s far from textbook. But, most of these traits (other than height and agility to a certain extent) can be fixed through good coaching.
For the Arizona Cardinals, Johnson would be a nice fit on a shallow, but much-improved linebacking core. While he isn’t likely to earn snaps over Jordan Hicks or Haason Reddick from the get-go, he would surely be a solid depth player.
Final verdict: Gary Johnson should be available in the fourth and fifth rounds. He could be a player the Cardinals look at as a linebacker with a high ceiling, but with the floor as a standout special teamer.
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