Minnesota wide receiver Tyler Johnson was faced with a difficult decision this offseason. Following a productive 2018 campaign, Johnson became one of the nation's top young wide receivers. In January, he was generating NFL interest and had the chance to be selected early in April's draft.
Suddenly, the Gophers' top wide receiver had a decision to make. After deliberating for a few weeks, Johnson, a Minneapolis native, decided he wanted to finish what he started at the University of Minnesota.
It was time to stay in school and earn his degree.
“It took awhile because that’s a pretty hard decision to make,” Johnson said this spring. “But, overall, I talked to my family and I’m about this close to school being done. I’ll be the first in my family to get my college diploma, as me being the oldest and my parents as well. That took a lot of consideration."
Following the fall semester, Johnson is set to earn a degree in Business and Marketing Education. He will be accomplishing a goal he set off-the-field, while continuing to pursue a future career in the NFL.
An ultra-productive 2018 season turned the heads of scouts and draft analysts. Johnson set school records in both receiving yards (1,169 yards) and touchdowns (12). He became the first Minnesota player to tally four consecutive 100-yard performances in Big Ten action. He grabbed 78 receptions and flashed his versatility by frequently moving outside and into the slot. In 2018, he was also tested as a leader. Johnson was the most experienced player in a wide receiver room which featured just three upperclassmen.
The progression of the former Minneapolis North star has been noticeable over the past two seasons. Johnson was a top basketball player, quarterback and defensive back in high school and led both teams to state championships. During his career on the hardwood, Johnson threw down highlight-reel slam dunks and alley-oops. When the ball was in his hands, the explosiveness and athletic ability jumped off the charts.
Over the past two seasons with the Gophers, Johnson has fine-tuned his athleticism at the wide receiver position. As a freshman, Johnson posted just 14 catches for 141 yards and one touchdown. At the time, he was still navigating the nuances of the position, but burst onto the scene as a sophomore and junior.
Under the instruction of wide receivers coach Matt Simon and head coach P.J. Fleck, Johnson developed into a technician at the position. When watching his film, it's easy to notice he has become a student of the game. He understands the leverage of a defensive back and will take advantage by snapping off his route, driving off his back foot and using his short-range quickness to put the defender on skates. Johnson doesn't have incredible straight line speed, but his footwork, lower body explosiveness and route-running have separated him from some of the top wide receivers in college football. When you watch Johnson play, you notice how consistently he executes all three parts of a route from the release, to the vertical extension and finish. Johnson averaged 3.35 yards per route run last year (per Pro Football Football Focus), which illustrates his growth in this area. After analyzing his strengths and weaknesses, you see a player capable of carving out a career in the NFL.
In the first route below, I want you to pay attention to a couple things. First, Johnson keeps his shoulders vertical until the last possible moment. He also uses a subtle head fake, which causes the defensive back to fall off balance to the sideline. Prior to that, his footwork and patience allowed him to control the route. Johnson plants off his inside foot, drops his hips and all the defensive back can do is lunge forward. He also keeps his arms pumping (specifically his inside one), which makes it difficult for the defensive back to grab ahold of him at the stem of his route. Minnesota's staff is constantly teaching wide receivers to keep their inside arm pumping to avoid giving a defensive back something to hold onto. They call this a "meat-grinder." By executing in this area, it's more difficult for a cornerback to jam the receiver and control a route. During this route, Johnson keeps his head still, shoulders vertical, drops his hips and uses patience/footwork to let the route develop. After executing the first two phases of the route (release and vertical extension), Johnson finishes the play by displaying his dynamic playmaking ability after the catch. When the ball is in his hands, he shows off his full-field vision, patience and explosiveness to find creases.
One of the biggest differences in Johnson's kill set is how well he understands the nuances of the position, such as how to effectively read the leverage of a defensive back. In the clip blow, he sells the fade release, but catches the cornerback shading him to the sideline. Johnson brakes, drives off his back foot and open his hips to snap off a slant route in the red zone. This was such a sudden route and displays the patience of Johnson's route running. He uses foot-fire to diagnose how he wants to approach the route and then reads the cornerback to determine the best course of action. Johnson is very gifted at using angles to his advantage. There are so many situations where he snaps a route off because of the leverage a defensive back is currently playing with.
This has become a theme in the red zone for Johnson. In the route below, you'll again see how patient he is as a route runner. He sells the outside release, uses a head fake and gets the cornerback leaning toward the sideline. Johnson explodes off his back foot and rounds off his route beautifully to take advantage of the defensive back losing his balance and biting hard.
This type of detail shines through via a variety of different concepts in the route tree. Last year, one of Johnson's best games came against some of the best competition he faced -- the Ohio State Buckeyes.
With Johnson's success running posts, digs and slant patterns in the intermediate game, defensive backs would start to cheat and shade him with inside leverage. In the clip below, you'll notice the cornerback cheats inside at the top of Johnson's route. Johnson sold the inside release really well, but broke off the route and flattened it to the sideline, which effectively took away the cornerback's angle. Again, after completing the route, he flashed his yards after the catch ability. Johnson stops on a dime, lets the defender trail by and gains additional yardage.
In the next route against Ohio State, the defensive back is playing off Johnson. Again, his shoulders are vertical and his head is completely still. Many wide receivers get into trouble because they try to open their shoulders, instead of just varying their route tempos. In this instance, Johnson catches the cornerback on his heels, understands his depth and snaps off the route by quickly turning his hips and getting separation. These type of intermediate routes, including digs and slants make Johnson really difficult to cover. At the next level, his quick feet and very sudden movements will make him a tough matchup in the slot. If was asked to compare certain aspects of his skill set to a specific NFL player, I would choose Davante Adams.
The final route of this game again displays his patience. He uses foot-fire, explodes off his outside foot and drops his hips. At that point, the cornerback is leaning because Johnson manipulated him with his footwork. Johnson almost always controls and dictates what he is going to do from a route-running standpoint. In the past year, his ability to identify and exploit leverage/angles might be the most noticeable difference. The subtle intricacies of his footwork and football IQ allow him to be such a lethal intermediate receiver.
We've spent all this time looking at the intermediate game, but it's important to investigate Johnson's vertical skills. He has shown a few strengths in this particular portion of his game. His ball tracking and body control allow him to adjust and win battles at the catch point. In the clip below, the Gophers are stretching the field by exploiting the seam of the field. The outside receivers run comebacks to the sideline, while Demetrius Douglas and Tyler Johnson push up the seam. This looks like a glorified four verticals concept with the outside receivers coming back to the sideline. In this play, Johnson sheds hand contact after the release, the defensive back loses balances, Tyler gets space to work and maintains body control. He then tracks the throw over his shoulder and hauls in the pass. This is the type of play Johnson has managed to make, especially if a ball is under thrown.
The next play is the perfect example of maintaining body control. Johnson gets just enough separation by faking inside and redirecting his release outward. The ball is under thrown, but Johnson adjusts in traffic and wins a 50/50 battle at the catch point. In the past, P.J. Fleck has instructed his receivers to think about accelerating upward when trying to bring in these type of passes. If receivers are going to make this type of play, body positioning is critical. In this case, Johnson was able to reach over the defensive back for a tough grab.
When Johnson runs a post route, he has an extremely high success rate. The only time he struggles is when he can't muscle his way through contact at the stem of his route. He can be too patient and it gets him into trouble. When he is taking too long to make a decision, he can get pushed off his path. However, when he's patient enough and sudden out of his break, he's very difficult to cover. In the clip below, the defensive back is eventually shaded with outside leverage, Johnson hits him with foot-fire at the top of his route, vigorously pumps his arms and drops his hips on a dime. This leads to extensive separation and Johnson tracks the pass for a big gain.
One weakness that appears in Johnson's game is occasionally inconsistent hands. He makes the difficult plays look easy and struggles with the type of concentration drops shown below. Johnson has to keep tracking passes before trying to make a play after the catch. Most of them are the result of his body getting too far in front of his hands.
Finding the Red Zone
Johnson's skills in the red zone make him a very difficult matchup for opposing teams. Many of the themes have been discussed above, but there's statistical support for his dominance in this area. He hauled in ten red zone touchdowns, which leads all returning FBS wide receivers, according to Pro Football Focus. He also had five contested catches on seven targets inside the 20-yard-line. Johnson saw 29 targets (three touchdowns) in the fourth quarter or overtime and didn't drop a single pass in that timeframe, per PFF.
Many of the clips above were red zone examples, but I pulled a few other clips to break down in detail. In the play below, the Gophers ran a "drive and chase" (or drag and follow) concept. The X receiver runs a drag and the Z receiver follows after stressing the defense to the corner of the end zone. This is off the lineage of switch concepts and can be a really effective red zone play both against man coverage and soft, underneath zones. In this play, Rashod Bateman runs the drag and clears out the area, while Johnson chases behind for an effortless touchdown. Many of the successful plays inside the 20-yard-line are the result of design by offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. His ability to place players in successful situations is one of the reasons why their potential is full maximized.
The final three plays all display Johnson's brilliance inside the red zone. In the play below, the defensive back is playing tighter man coverage and Johnson sells the inside route with his feet and a nice head fake. He also keeps his shoulders vertical, brakes with his left foot, explodes off his inside leg and releases for a fade touchdown.
Finally, the last two clips came from the bowl game against Georgia Tech. Johnson had two red zone touchdowns and both of them were the result of brilliant releases and contested grabs. The first play was successful because Johnson got the cornerback on skates. He pumped his arms, planted inside and got the defensive back looking into the backfield. As a result, he dropped his hips and got separation over the top. It was simply a beautiful double move. It's also worth shouting out quarterback Tanner Morgan for a perfect throw in the red zone. This is certainly a strength of Morgan's skill set and his ability to drop this ball into a bucket allowed Johnson to take advantage of a smooth double move release/route.
The final play is another example of Johnson's skills inside the 20-yard-line. He again executes a nice double move release and turns the cornerback around. Johnson gets yards of separation, but realizes the defensive back is starting to overplay. He slows up and adjusts to the ball for a tough contested catch. This subtle adjustment allowed Tanner Morgan to place the ball in a spot where Johnson was the only player who could make the catch.
Tyler Johnson has improved every single year and has the chance to put together a big 2019 campaign. If he does, there's no telling how high he could be selected in next year's NFL Draft. The 2020 wide receiver class is loaded with talent at the top, which complicates projecting a current value. However, if Johnson builds upon last season, he could be discussed at the top of wide receiver draft boards. His versatility, detailed route running and athletic skills will be attractive to scouts. With a young Minnesota squad starting to show signs of improvement, Johnson could be on a bigger stage to showcase his skills, too.
Without a doubt, Johnson has the talent to be considered one of the most underrated prospects in the 2020 class.
For additional routes I pulled out from each game, here's a video in my tweet from last week:
(videos for this article were provided by Fox, Big Ten Network and ESPN)
I’ve been studying #Gophers WR Tyler Johnson closely. Pay attention to his quick feet, hips and ability to take advantage of leverage. His route running is precise/patient and he’s sudden out of breaks. He keeps his shoulders vertical and varies his route tempos. A detailed WR! pic.twitter.com/IVPUlAXigZ— Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL) July 4, 2019
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Tag(s): Gopher Football