Coming out of Penn State after the 2015 season, there were high expectations for defensive tackle Austin Johnson.
Pro Football Focus considered him one of the best run defending tackles in college football. He had compiled 6.5 sacks in 2015, showing some pass rush potential. Draft Wire’s respected draft analyst Jon Ledyard had a first-round grade on Johnson, with Ledyard writing:
Honestly there isn’t much to dislike about Johnson’s game if you use him correctly. He doesn’t have the anchor to play a true nose tackle, two-gapping role in a 3-4 defense, but allowing Johnson to play inside in a 4-3 will accentuate his strengths. You just won’t find many prospects his size that can play in space and get after the quarterback without compromising his defensive assignment at all. Johnson controls the line of scrimmage, can make plays with quickness and penetration, and is too long and laterally agile to zone block. If necessary, Johnson can even play in multiple fronts as a five technique for a 3-4 defense.
Johnson ended up being selected in the second round, 43rd overall, by the Tennessee Titans. Nittany Lions defensive line coach Sean Spencer, who now has that job with the Giants, said this when Johnson was drafted:
“A.J. is a true student of the game with a really high level of intelligence football-wise. He is a freak athlete. The combination of being 6-4, 315 pounds, moves like a cat with tremendous power at the point of attack and an unbelievable ability to make moves in short quarters makes me believe that his next step is going to be tremendous. He is going to be a great pro.”
Johnson has been a good player, but has yet to meet those lofty expectations. In Tennessee, he was a rotational tackle generally regarded mainly as a run stuffer. In four seasons with the Titans, the most playing time he received was 399 snaps (38 percent of defensive snaps) in 2018. He had 83 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 58 games, 13 of which he started.
SB Nation’s Titans site, Music City Miracles, did not seem upset to bid adieu to Johnson when his signing with the Giants was reported:
Johnson was a disappointment given his draft status as the 43rd overall pick, five picks ahead of Saints star receiver Michael Thomas. He eventually developed into a decent rotational run stuffer, but he never contributed anything from a pass rush standpoint.
The view here is it’s a little unfair to throw in Thomas’ name when discussing Johnson’s production. Thomas was selected 47th by the New Orleans Saints, with the Giants taking Sterling Shepard at No. 40. That’s pretty much cherry-picking a player who has vastly out-produced his draft slot.
Just as a point of information, Dave Gettleman, then GM in Carolina, snagged new Giants cornerback James Bradberry with the 62nd pick in that same draft.
Johnson joins a Giants’ defensive line that already features Dexter Lawrence, Leonard Williams, Dalvin Tomlinson and B.J. Hill.
“We’re going to have a really, really good defensive line,” Johnson told me during a recent phone conversation. “A lot of depth, a lot of talent.”
Can Johnson make a bigger impact with the Giants than he did with the Titans? He hopes so.
“I feel like there’s always another level,” Johnson said. “There’s more things to learn. Always experience, so every year you learn something new, experience something new. As a player you grow every year.”
Johnson, a Galloway, N.J. native, admitted that reuniting with Spencer, known as “Coach Chaos,” as well as being closer to home were reasons he chose to sign with the Giants.
Johnson played for Spencer in 2014 and 2015.
“He’s just an amazing coach. Great personality, great energy, loves what he does and you can tell,” Johnson said. “There’s just so much passion. It’s awesome.
“He’s definitely a high-energy kind of guy. He’s going to make sure you run to the ball. He’s going to run with you, he’s going to make you a better player. Whatever your strengths are he’s going to let you play to those and he’s just an all-around great coach.”