Following a solid career at Iowa and a strong rookie preseason, it appeared that Jaleel Johnson was on his way to a rotational role behind veteran Tom Johnson in 2017. Instead, he only saw the field for 41 snaps during his first regular season.
But after a year of working on the scout team, the ’17 fourth-round pick has earned a role in Year 2 and played 22 snaps in Week 1. Now he appears to be an important part of the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive line rotation.
On Thursday, Johnson explained how his work last season in practice helped him improve.
“My approach to the whole thing was, the coaches felt like they had a plan in place and they had their guys they wanted to put on the field, I was the guy who gave our offense a good look during the week helping them prepare for Sundays, I just took that role and embraced it,” Johnson said.
While “trust the process” has become a common cliche across sports, in Johnson’s case it was the best way he could view the situation.
“I would go against our starting O-line every day in practice and worked the techniques that coach ‘Dre [Andre Patterson] showed us,” he said. “I just kept working. It’s all a grind, it’s a process, you just have to embrace it. That’s what I felt that I did. Not just me, Tashawn [Bower], those guys, we just embraced our role and got better every single day. When we reported back, we just picked up where we left off and just kept getting better.”
The Vikings have a history of developing defensive linemen. Superstar edge rusher Everson Griffen was a situational player for the first four years of his career. Tom Johnson and Brian Robison, who both worked with Jaleel last year, both had long journeys to becoming full-time starters. Their examples have helped the 24-year-old understand how long it can take to become a regular.
“You look at guys like Griff [Everson Griffen] and B-Rob [Brian Robison], B-Rob was one of these guys who embraced it, he wasn’t a star right away, Griff wasn’t a star right away,” Johnson said. “They did whatever they could to get on the field and produce so they could become the stars. That’s one thing I really admire about those guys. They keep the ball rolling. They never give up.”
Head coach Mike Zimmer said the biggest challenge of making the jump from college to playing interior defensive line in the NFL is dealing with the speed of the game.
“If it’s on the inside, things happen really fast in this league,” Zimmer said. “The violence of things that happen in there, you get double teamed, you can get trapped, you can get a wham from the outside. Getting adjusted to the quickness of things.”
There aren’t many better people in the NFL that could help young defensive linemen adjust to NFL speed than renowned defensive line coach Andre Patterson.
“There are guys that just want to do what they’re comfortable with and don’t want to leave their comfort zone, that’s one thing that our D-line coach emphasizes, leaving the comfort zone, doing things you’ve never done before,” Johnson said. “Whether it’s watching more film or working a new pass rush that you haven’t worked before, just getting out of your element and you can be a great pass rusher like Tom [Johnson] or Sheldon [Richardson].”
The Vikings have also created a culture within the locker room of teaching younger players. Griffen said that the starters see it beneficial to do everything they can to help role players like Johnson excel.
“That is how you win,” Griffen said. “What is it, you’re strong as your weakest link? Everybody has to be strong….Good things can happen and the faster you get them coached up and on the playbook, great things happen. I think that is what we strive for.”
Zimmer said it might be harder for the Vikings to rotate defensive linemen if the Packers play no-huddle offense this week, but it appears Johnson and other young D-linemen Tashawn Bower and Stephen Weatherly will be a significant part of the Vikings’ defensive attack this year — and that’s partly because of their patience with the process.