This week’s NFL Draft sleeper is DL Eric Johnson II (6043 302lbs, 10” hand, 34 6/8” arm, 83” wingspan), Missouri State (FCS)
Eric Johnson is a prospect I actually didn’t know a lot about until seeing him dominate the trenches during practices at the NFLPA Bowl in Pasadena. Yes, even someone as obsessed with small-school prospects as I appear to be can come late to the party.
Eric Johnson grew up a wrestler in a football family; his father Eric played at Pitt and then became an all-conference LB at Illinois State––going on to play in the CFL and XFL. His brother Marcellus is the starting LT for Eastern Michigan. Eric was occupied being a 4-year varsity and all-Illinois wrestler, only starting for the football team in his senior year, where he made all-conference in his “second” sport by tallying 17 sacks and 29 tackles for loss. Getting a late start in football is one of those things that send an NFL talent to a smaller FCS school.
Johnson entered Missouri State as a 230lb LB who ran a 4.54 40-yard dash. The weight room has been good to Johnson, as his added 72lbs are carried well on a tall frame. As he blossomed into a bigger and high quality lineman, opponents began focusing their blocking attention on stopping him.
Here’s Johnson, #93 playing at right DT, getting a triple-team that allows his teammate to get a big hit on the QB:
Playing as a NT/1-tech and fighting through consistent double teams didn’t help him generate big numbers consistently, but did manage several high tackle games 6.4 TFL and 21.5 sacks in his final season––despite mostly blowing up plays with penetration that other players cleaned up. He also showcased the one of his best abilities: availability, finishing his career having played played in 48 straight games.
HOW HE WINS:
You can see the wrestling background and the leftover quickness from the 230lb recruit. Johnson has leverage and quickness for days. During NFLPA and Senior Bowl practices, he won reps with an extremely advanced array of glorious spin moves, rips, swim, handfighting, bull rush, & even a dip and rip where he got his 302 pounds about 2 feet off the ground, leaving his opponent almost no surface area.
Here’s Johnson’s “Who is this guy??” moment in Mobile, his first practice in 1-on-1s, vs a very talented SEC OL:
Here’s Johnson #93 at left DT, with one quick step and a swat that gets him outside leverage on the RT, a punch to the TE that knocks him backward, and a rip that almost gets home. That’s some nice pass rush to the edge for a 300lb+ NT.
His long arms give him room to work and he sometimes ran through a mesmerizing series of moves while inexorably moving toward the backfield. On top of all that, he’s just relentless. In practices or games, he’s just going flat out on every play; just keeps bringing it. My thought watching him close up was: ‘Man, he must be a total pain in the a** for an OL!’
Here’s yet another winning rep, this time on the bull rush vs another stout SEC OL:
With his 83″ wingspan he’s capable of playing a 2-gap style but he’s such a disruptive penetrator that it would almost be a waste to use him to simply control blockers/gaps for a LB behind him.
Here’s an outside zone rep, where RDT Johnson gets his long arm into the OT, keeps his leverage down the line, and would have made the play except he gets tackled (no flag):
As far as finishing? If he gets his hands on you, you’re going down. Considering his technique in other aspects, it’s not a surprise that his tackling technique is also practiced and advanced. He is high energy getting into the backfield but also boasts good recognition and the ability to redirect to wherever the ball is going. His combination of long arms and strong hands helps make him a dependable tackler.
THINGS TO WORK ON:
Well, the main issue is something that he can’t work on: He’s a super senior and a bit overaged (graduated high school in 2016, so circa 24 years old), meaning he may have maxed-out on his development more than the average draft prospect. He should be dominating younger and less developed players.
Johnson can also get canceled by stout guards/OL with good hand technique who get their feet in position.
Johnson tries something similar to what he did in one of the reps up above, but here Kinnard moves his feet into position and gets into Johnson’s chest before Eric can extend his arms:
One pass-rush rep I saw where he didn’t win, he seemed slightly late to get his hands up and got locked out by a player with less length. He will have to learn how to more aptly disengage with his hands if he doesn’t win cleanly.
Johnson so many tools in the box with his variety of spins, swims, and dips that it him overthink his approach at times. I did see the occasional rep where he was late going to whatever move he was planning, and late in the interior line play usually means a lost rep.
He’s also not an interior DL who is going to win a lot vs. double-teams. He is more likely to win with quickness and power 1-on-1 than he is to split or break down two.
Other than that, not a lot of obvious flaws, just a steady player who shows great variety and polish as a penetrator/pass rusher.
Before the All-Star circuit, he was viewed as a tryout player, meaning a level below undrafted free agent. After Pasadena and licking his chops facing single blockers, I’d have bet someone would draft him late. After being a Senior Bowl-callup who had some standout practice reps, I find it hard to believe he’ll make it past round 6 even in a formidable DT class.
A more polished, longer version of Teair Tart.
Defensive lineman who can penetrate and be disruptive are always in short supply and perhaps more important than ever. He fits as a 3-tech in an even front or could play NT, DE, & nickel pass rusher for a 1-gap odd front.
A coveted possession if he translates to better competition in the NFL and finds his way away into 1-on-1 matchups on occasion. A potential quality starter-level talent. If he’s maxed out and not as standout vs NFL pros, or gets used as a block-eater he’ll probably still find a roster spot because of his potential as an interior wave rusher.
2x Missouri Valley All-Conference
NFLPA Collegiate Bowl & Senior Bowl Practice standout