Minnesota wide receiver Tyler Johnson intrigues many NFL Draft experts and pundits on Twitter with his extraordinary catch radius and quickness out of the slot. His production has been extraordinary in Minnesota, despite the clear inconsistencies that the program has had at the quarterback position during his time there. Johnson produced 86 catches in 13 games this season and scored 13 touchdowns while averaging 15.3 yards per catch. Johnson has an excellent size too, standing at 6’2″ and 210 pounds.
Against Auburn, Johnson was an X-factor. He racked 12 catches for 204 yards and 2 touchdowns against an SEC defense that had been stout all season long. Minnesota would go on to win, 31-24.
However, many respected experts question the ability of Tyler Johnson and how he will translate to the NFL level. NFL scouts seem to have their concerns too, most notably the Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy sharing these concerns by not extending an invite to the Senior Bowl. Bleacher Report’s NFL Draft expert Matt Miller has taken much heat on social media for his public concerns for Johnson.
At the moment, Johnson is slated to perform in the East-West Shrine Bowl in St. Petersburg, Florida. I think his game tape showed us a lot of good while at the same time validating some of the bad. Let’s get into it, shall we?
Tyler Johnson’s first target
Believe it or not, Tyler Johnson’s very first target of the game was an interception that Auburn almost returned for a touchdown. Let’s take a look at it below.
Tyler Johnson’s first target from yesterday… a horrendous decision by Tanner Morgan trying to force the ball to his playmaker and he got burned for it. pic.twitter.com/thD3TobeqC
— John Vogel (@johndavogel) January 2, 2020
The very first thing that must be pointed out is how horrendous of a throw this was by Tanner Morgan. Morgan was pressured, threw off base, and tried to force the ball to his playmaker. Johnson was not ready for this football to be thrown at all. He was still working on his release, where he was facing press coverage. This play is certainly not on Johnson, as Morgan had no business trying to force that ball to go there. However, it does bring up one of the concerns that people have on Johnson, and that’s his lack of ability to get off of press coverage.
Tyler Johnson is a finesse type of a receiver. He is quick and wants to use that quickness in and out of breaks to create space. When facing a physical, press cornerback, we see him struggle to release and create separation from the snap. That’s what happens here. He is struggling to get off on the press corner, and the press corner recognizes what is happening with Morgan in the backfield. He jumps the route, and it’s a horrific way for Minnesota to start the game.
I’m not sure what Johnson is trying to accomplish on this play with his release. The worst part is that he gets inside leverage, and then he stops trying to run the route and cuts back to move upfield.
Johnson’s first catch
Johnson came right back on the next drive with a very nice deep crosser over the middle.
This is where Tyler Johnson is at his best. He has off coverage, and he is able to work to space. It’s a crossing route and he picks where he breaks. Tanner Morgan gives him a good throw up high and he snags it without any issues.
A lot of people think of Johnson as former Ohio State receiver and current Washington Redskins player Terry McLaurin. The two do have remarkably similar skillsets and are experts out of the slot. The way that Minnesota head coach PJ Fleck uses Johnson is very much the same as Washington uses McLaurin. I think McLaurin is more effective at fielding the deep ball than Johnson is, but let’s not get sidetracked and continue.
Context to the scheme
To talk a little bit more about moving to space: it’s what they ask Johnson to do almost every play. He finds the soft spots in zone coverage and sits.
Just an observation at how Minnesota typically uses Tyler Johnson. He’s in the slot toward the bottom of the screen. It’s a simple quick go up and sit in space. pic.twitter.com/aqvNHGLwrC— John Vogel (@johndavogel) January 2, 2020
Bill Belichick was the architect who made this famous when he had slot receiver Wes Welker. He wanted to create a simple check-down for his quarterback and had a quick little guy who could catch pretty much anything that came his way. Johnson isn’t by any means a “little quick guy”, he’s much bigger than that.
Tyler Johnson’s first touchdown
This catch is extraordinary. I’m going to show you multiple angles so that you can see every aspect of this catch.
The wide-angle shows how little Johnson had to work with on this particular play. As you can see, he’s almost stumbling through the end zone, gets to the back, goes up and high points the football. It’s not by any means a conventional play.
Tyler Johnson is having a dominant Outback Bowl. This one-handed TD is simply bonkers. pic.twitter.com/CAXsIRqdpx— Rob Paul (@RobPaulNFL) January 1, 2020
Now, look at how far Johnson had to extend to make this catch. It’s absolutely incredible, and he hauls it in with one hand and somehow gets his foot down inbounds. The play is already off rhythm because of the lack of space in the end zone and the throw wasn’t great, but Tyler Johnson made it work because of his effort.
The second touchdown
Tyler Johnson Deep Post (great route running) pic.twitter.com/efCvbSwQLJ— Quarterback Film Room (@QBFilmRoom) January 1, 2020
Remember when I said that Tyler Johnson is very good in off coverage? This second touchdown highlights that. Auburn was sick of Johnson getting behind them, so they went to a 10-yard cushion. This allows Johnson to run freely all game as long as his route concepts go underneath. Auburn is playing it safe, they feel confident that their defenders can come up and make the tackle to limit Johnson’s gain.
The problem? This play, Auburn goes with a man blitz. Every receiver is matched up one-on-one with the defensive backs across the board. There is no safety help because the safeties are covering people. Tyler Johnson is excellent when people aren’t physical with him, and he makes Auburn pay. His route is flawless and he burns them for the big gain with a good throw from Morgan.
What are NFL teams taking away from this performance?
Auburn plays good team defense, but the individuals are lacking in the secondary this season. Because Auburn is so inconsistently coached, it’s really hard to say how the NFL will look at Tyler Johnson’s performance. It’s hard to write off twelve games of tape because the thirteenth game was excellent.
NFL scouts don’t question Tyler Johnson’s catch radius, or his after the catch-ability. People question his speed as he struggled all season to beat man coverage. Scouts question his physicality because NFL slot cornerbacks will not let him have it easy. His contested catch-ability isn’t where it needs to be. Sometimes, he drops routine throws because he tries to field the ball into his body instead of extending for it.
Johnson showed us how deadly he can be if he isn’t checked around the line of scrimmage. Johnson showed us what he can do against off coverage. However, from the very first play of the game, he also confirmed that he can’t handle NFL corners pressing him from the line of scrimmage.
That’s why he will fall, ladies and gentlemen. It’s a long process and an arduous journey. If Johnson can prove that he has straight-line speed at the combine, NFL scouts will change their tune about him.