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Who is Gary Johnson, the UDFA linebacker just signed by the Redskins?

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This former Longhorns linebacker had more 2018 tackles, tackles-for-loss, sacks, forced fumbles, and fumble recoveries than Devin Bush

Off-the-ball linebacker, Gary Johnson

The Redskins quietly added to their linebacker depth on Saturday when they signed former Texas linebacker Gary Johnson.

It would be normal to wonder about the quality of a player who was available to be signed in the middle of the NFL pre-season, but Johnson — who was first signed and later released by the Kansas City Chiefs — had a lot of fans among analysts this off-season, and his release from the Kansas City roster was a mild shock to Chiefs fans.

On the one hand, we all know that anyone categorized as an undrafted free agent is a longshot to make a team’s active roster. Each and every player who goes undrafted weathers the process for a reason—character concerns, injury history, a lacking skill set, poor scheme fit—and being available post-draft means every single franchise decided to take someone else multiple times. That’s a shaky foundation for any player.

On the other hand, every single year, undrafted free agents make the roster of every team in the league. Last year, the Kansas City Chiefs carried multiple UDFAs on the roster, and this year’s class earned all kinds of praise. While the Chiefs still have a number of impressive young talents who went undrafted on the current 90-man roster, general manager Brett Veach also decided to cut a couple players that left us scratching our heads.

On Thursday, the Chiefs announced a flurry of roster moves as they signed tight end Neal Sterling and released three players in the process to clear room for not only Sterling but other candidates. Among those names were offensive lineman Justin Senior, running back James Williams, and linebacker Gary Johnson. It’s the latter two that came as a fairly big surprise to Chiefs fans paying attention, since those were among the best bets to make the active roster.

Johnson was an exemplary linebacker from the University of Texas who signed on with the Chiefs after the draft. The Chiefs linebacking corps in general has been a sore spot on the defense for the last couple years, and the idea that another Longhorn from Texas surnamed Johnson sounds romantic to Chiefs fans who grew up watching the one and only Derrick Johnson solve the Chiefs woes in the heart of the defense.

Johnson was a sure tackler for Texas the last couple years and had 90 last season for the Longhorns, 16.5 of them for a loss. Johnson was named second team All Big 12 in the process, a way to celebrate his 6.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles as well. Questions about his athleticism at the pro level surfaced, but the Chiefs felt like a good spot for Johnson to prove his doubters wrong and fight the odds to make a roster.

Pre-draft analysis

Johnson was considered draftable in this year’s draft by many analysts, but managed to slip through 256 selections without a team calling his name.

Lance Zierlein of NFL.com seemed to like him:

Signed as a UDFA by the Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs signed Johnson post-draft and brought him in for OTAs. Back in early June, the Chiefs Wire published an article spotlighting Gary Johnson:

What’s not to like about undrafted free agent signing Gary Johnson? He was just a two-year LB at Texas, after being the No. 1 JUCO linebacker transfer in 2017. Johnson wasn’t the biggest or fastest linebacker in this draft class, but his production and athleticism speaks for itself.

Both Devin White of LSU and Devin Bush of Michigan, are about the same size as Johnson. All three ran in the low 4.4’s and performance wise, Johnson landed right in the middle of the two.

In 2018 White led the trio in total tackles, had one more forced and recovered fumble than Johnson. But Gary led both of the Devin’s in sacks and tackles for loss.

Stats:

2017: 13 games (7 starts) 57 tackles, six tackles for loss, two sacks, one pass defended, and one forced fumble.

2018: 13 games (all starts), 90 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, one pass defended, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

If you enjoy watching linebackers who play with fire, quickness and hit opposing ball carriers with ferocity, then I think you are going to enjoy watching this UDFA in action. Add to that, he is a stud special teams player. His ceiling is an eventual team leader and starter, while his floor is a reserve and special teams contributor.

Of course, it’s not all sweetness and light for Johnson or else he wouldn’t have gone undrafted and he wouldn’t have been released by the Chiefs. Andre Miller’s profile of Johnson on Fansided managed to point out his limitations as a player, while still managing to gush over him as a late round draft prospect:

What Johnson does still need to improve on is his ability in pass coverage and occasionally misdiagnosing run-pass options. His range and speed helped him blow up backfields, but it also played to his detriment at times. That speed won’t be as potent in the NFL as it was in the Big 12.

Yet, Johnson is still among the fastest and most athletic linebackers in this 2019 NFL Draft class. He’ll get a slight boost in his stock because of it if nothing else.

In all likelihood, Johnson should go down as a late day two or early day three selection. The former All-Big 12 linebacker is among the most underrated front seven prospects in this 2019 NFL Draft class and should be a stud at the next level.

Lance Zierlein was a little more direct, and delivered his bottom line without gushing:

Active inside linebacker with plenty of passion and aggression but a fundamental lack of NFL-caliber movement skills in space. Johnson is capable of handling downhill duties between the tackles but could struggle to match up with today’s space-oriented offensive attacks.

Even so, Zierlein had Johnson rated as a 7th round pick/priority free agent.

Redskins personnel at ILB

There have been a number of comments about the Redskins lack of quality depth at inside linebacker. While it’s difficult to see Johnson breaking into the 53-man roster, he may be just the sort of player who would make a great practice squad addition, and who might get “called up” in November or December if injuries start to cut into the liinebacker unit.

The current roster of linebackers:

  • Jon Bostic
  • Shaun Dion Hamilton
  • Josh Harvey-Clemons
  • Cole Holcomb
  • B.J. Blunt
  • Marquis Flowers

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