Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson led the SEC with 138 tackles in 2012 en route to being named to the All-SEC second team, but that production is not a reflection of him being a high draft pick in the NFL draft.
The 6-foot-2, 243-pound Johnson has a wide range of projections from talent evaluators as some view him as the top middle linebacker prospect in the draft, but at the same time don’t see him being taken until round three at the earliest. Others, like Todd McShay, don’t even have a grade for Johnson.
Looking at the number of tackles for Johnson is fool’s gold. He has been one of the few bright spots on the Vols’ defense over the past three seasons, but the high volume of stops wasn’t indicative of his playmaking ability and his NFL draft slot will reflect that. He reminds me a little of former Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes who played on some great Gators defenses, but lacked the same athleticism, foot speed and agility that Johnson does.
Linebackers who are drafted early in the new era of the NFL are those with exceptional pass rush ability who can thrive in a 3-4 defense, and middle linebackers like Luke Kuechly who can play in coverage and make plays sideline to sideline. Unfortunately for Johnson, he doesn’t do either. He has one career sack, one forced fumble as a freshman and zero interceptions.
#Vol LB A.J. Johnson has 302 career tackles, one (!) career sack, and 18.5 TFLs. 6.4% of his tackles come behind the line.
— Football Time in TN (@FootballTimeMag) November 11, 2013
His splash plays are non-existent and his play as a junior has regressed. You see him around the ball when you watch the Vols, but he’s missing tackles at an alarming rate and is tackling with his arms, not his body. Johnson has good football intelligence and a high motor that masks some of his athletic deficiencies, but he just can’t cover backs or tight ends in coverage where he’ll get eaten alive at the next level.
A team who runs a 3-4 defense would be the ideal landing spot for Johnson in the NFL where his lack of speed, lateral ability and change-of-direction skills won’t be magnified in a system where he can play downhill. With less of an emphasis on drafting middle linebackers early, his lack of splash plays and athleticism will make it tough for him to be picked before round five because of the new era in the NFL.
Productive college players aren’t guaranteed NFL success. This isn’t to say he can’t get in a good situation and thrive in the NFL, but from a draft standpoint, his stock is dropping and he should come back for his senior season.
Patrick’s a college football writer for Rant Sports and radio host on Sportstownchicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickASchmidt and Google and email him at SchmidtPatrick@gmail.com for media inquiries.
Related: Top 25 Draft-Eligible SEC Prospects