Minnesota wide receiver Tyler Johnson has become one of the more controversial NFL Draft prospects ahead of the NFL Scouting Combine, and opinions on him seem more split than the typical senior. Johnson has been one of the most productive receivers in the country, with nearly 2,500 receiving yards and 25 receiving touchdowns over the past two seasons, but when the initial Senior Bowl invitations were sent out, Johnson found himself empty-handed.
Then rumors began to surface about Johnson having some character concerns from people in larger media outlets, which would eventually hurt his draft evaluations with NFL teams.
While Johnson has been impressive in the box score over the past two seasons, there are evaluators that have pointed out that he’s likely going to test as a mediocre athlete by NFL standards. This could ultimately limit his ceiling as an NFL wide receiver, and Johnson eventually decided to get ahead on NFL Scouting Combine prep by skipping the East-West Shrine Game.
Currently, we’re left with the unique case of a senior wide receiver with great production but questionable athleticism and no participation in an all-star game. His tape evaluation becomes more valuable in this scenario.
After scouting Johnson through All-22 film, I highlighted the standout traits to explain his skill-set and how that could translate to the next level.
Johnson played primarily in the slot during his final season at Minnesota, and he’s at his best when tasked with in-breaking routes. Johnson can use his refined technique and route-running prowess well to separate over the middle.
On slant routes or crossers, wide receivers are taught to close down on the cushion that defensive backs afford them. Depending on the depth that the defensive back plays, receivers should adjust their pacing in order to break their routes from close to the defensive back. Commonly used terms by wide receiver coaches are “step on their toes” or “get in their kitchen.”
When a wide receiver closes on that cushion of the defensive back, it will force them on to their heels or to turn their hips to the sideline. That’s an ideal position for the wide receiver, as it allows them to cross the face of the defensive back and create extra movement for the defensive back’s change of direction.
Johnson has a natural feel for the route pacing during his stems, separating from the defensive back once he makes them uncomfortable in coverage. Johnson is shifty enough to sustain that separation as he crosses the field, creating easy throwing lanes for the quarterback.
Minnesota WR Tyler Johnson has a natural feel for his route pacing, closing down the cushion of the defensive backs and breaking once he gets “in their kitchen.” Johnson is able to cross face of DB’s no matter their initial depth. pic.twitter.com/OKaBxEAIHK— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) February 4, 2020
Johnson’s route pacing and lateral movements translate into his work on fade routes, as well, once again closing down the space on the defensive backs before getting vertical. Despite the fact that Johnson is primarily a slot receiver, his refined footwork allows him to be effective against press coverage along the boundary and especially in the red zone.
On top of that, Johnson has the ball skills necessary to reach back towards the catch-point and pull the ball away from the defensive back. Once he’s able to stack the defensive back during his route, Johnson is usually scoring.
Minnesota WR Tyler Johnson pic.twitter.com/Mco0epeXrs— NFL Clips (@NFLDraftVideos) February 3, 2020
When Johnson is able to open up his route running, his pacing and understanding of leverage makes him a force against defensive backs attempting to backpedal with him. On the following rep, Johnson shows a textbook tape example of “chasing the blind spot” of defensive backs, meaning cutting towards their back once their hips are open in a run. Twice on the same stem, Johnson works himself towards the defensive back’s blind spot, eventually breaking across the field and leaving the defensive back in the spin cycle.
Like every prospect, there are concerns about Johnson’s skillset that could limit his pro projection. For starters, Johnson doesn’t have great acceleration on vertical routes. This limits his ability to uncover over the top or up the seam while facing off coverage, which defenses in his conference started to play against him.
That lack of natural quickness and long speed leads to Johnson being just average with the football in his hands. He’ll get chased down from behind and doesn’t have great elusiveness or ability to break tackles once defenders are in pursuit. On the following rep, he got chased down while running a jet sweep by an inside linebacker who ran through the back-side “A” gap, unacceptable for a slot receiver.
While Johnson struggled to separate vertically on typical seam routes or against off-coverage, his work when defenses played him a bit more tightly gives him promise.
With the play-fake in the backfield on this rep, Johnson has an extra moment to get into his route, faking an out route to get the safety to drive downhill. Once the safety is in attack mode, Johnson chops his hand down and beats him over the top, separating with enough space that he catches a pass thrown badly behind him.
There are limitations to Johnson’s game, but he has far too many positives on his tape to suggest anything other than a high “floor” as a prospect. Johnson’s ability to win in the middle of the field and/or in the red zone with his releases could make him a primary target for his future quarterback, regardless of their potential skill-set.
When you add in Johnson’s size and production, he’s a receiver prospect who should be in consideration towards the middle of Day 2 of the NFL Draft based on his skill-set shown on film.