Fourth Round, 99th Pick
Generally speaking, players that are not full-time college starters are going to have a tough time carving out a career in the professional ranks.
However, when it comes to the unmatched depth of the Alabama roster, rotational players like Nico Johnson are worth spending draft picks on. Despite starting just 18 games as a member of the Crimson Tide, Johnson is more of a victim of unusual depth than his own shortcomings as a player.
+ Assignment-sound run defender.
+ Good form tackler.
+ Effective blitzer.
+ Physical, willing to take on guards and fullbacks in force.
- Susceptible in coverage.
- Not a fluid mover.
- Faster in gym shorts than football pads.
- Only a rotational player at Alabama.
Coming off the bus, Johnson certainly looks the part at 6'2", 248 pounds. He has a strong lower body and good weight distribution throughout. He did not participate in drills at the combine because of a sports hernia, but he did run a solid 4.73 at Alabama's pro day.
Johnson is regarded as a bit of a workout warrior—as impressive as his measurables are for an inside linebacker, what he can do in gym shorts does not always translate to the field. Despite his quality 40 time, he plays much slower in pads and often struggles in coverage.
Johnson comes from the top program in the nation with a culture of winning and stout defense. He has no off-field issues to note.
Johnson ran into tragedy when his 49-year-old mother, Maime, passed away from complications of diabetes. The entire team went to the funeral three hours away, showing the kind of respect and care his fellow players have for him.
Johnson played as a rotational player throughout his time at Alabama as a run-stuffing two-down linebacker, lining up more often as a "Will." He was taken out of the game in passing situations, which, considering how often teams were playing "catch-up" with Alabama's dominant team, was quite often.
Based on his measurables, Johnson should be more productive in this area, but his deficiencies in coverage is the primary reason why he is a rotational player for Alabama.
Consequently, Johnson was not on the field for many passing plays, but when he was, he was targeted often by tight ends and running backs. He struggled as a result of tightness in his hips and lack of fluid movement. Because he did not trust his turn-and-run ability, he could not use his hands to disrupt pass-catchers, as shown in this long reception in a 2012 game against LSU.
LSU is able to get the matchup it wants, getting a smaller back on Johnson in man coverage. The route is an option route, which gives the back the ability to go opposite of whichever way Johnson anticipates.
Because of his lack of agility, Johnson decides to play the outside route, and the back responds by cutting inside. Now, Johnson's feet are in the opposite alignment with the back's, which only spells trouble.
It takes several steps for Johnson to completely turn around, allowing the back to get plenty of separation.
The result is an easy pitch-and-catch, and the running back has plenty of separation to get big yardage after the catch.
These are the types of situations NFL teams need to keep Johnson out of in order to maximize his effectiveness.
As a two-down inside linebacker, rushing the passer was not one of Johnson's primary responsibilities, but when has was called on to blitz, he was effective in doing so. He was often a blitzer as a "green dog," blitzing when his assigned tight end or running back stayed in to block, but he ran some designed blitzes during his time at Alabama as well.
Johnson is terrific when anticipating snap counts, which allowed him use great leverage to get into the backfield in a hurry. He did not have a sack in 2012, but he often found a way to get penetration and collapse a pocket.
Whether it is taking on fullbacks or sifting through trash to make tackles, Johnson does a little bit of everything in the run game.
He plays with tremendous physicality, as he takes on fullbacks with brute force. In this play, Johnson lays a lick on the fullback and still has the strength to disengage and bring down the runner before he can get any further:
One of the best things Nico does is that he is able to avoid contact altogether, sifting through trash to make a sound tackle within a yard or two of the line of scrimmage. When he is engaged, he has the strength to throw aside defenders and get involved in the play as soon as possible. No matter what, Johnson never gives up on a play because he is blocked early in the down.
What is more perplexing about Johnson is that while his speed does not translate to pass coverage, he flashes some sideline-to-sideline ability. Here, he runs across the field to track down an option play:
Read and React
Johnson is tremendous at diagnosing run plays as they occur and arriving at the correct gap to make the tackle at or near the line of scrimmage.
In the play below, Johnson is patient in waiting for the play for develop, not overcommiting to a particular gap. He waits for the offensive lineman to engage his fellow linebacker and fills the gap for a minimal gain.
Johnson is not going to make a lot of "splash" plays or lead his team in tackles for loss, but he will help prevent a running game from sustaining success.
While he does not have a Ray Lewis-like reputation as an intimidating hitter, Johnson rarely misses a tackle and displays good form when wrapping up. He takes good angles to get to the ball-carrier.
Bigger backs and offensive linemen knock him off balance a bit easily at the second level, but he almost always finds a way to recover and bring the runner down.
Johnson's role in the NFL will be virtually the same as it was in college as a two-down run-stopper that will have to leave the field on third downs.
Specifically, Johnson will start out as a "Will" linebacker on the weak side of a 3-4 front.
While the value of run-stopping players has certainly been diminished in a pass-happy NFL, every team needs players like Johnson to take on fullbacks and guards to stop the run. His role in the NFL will be limited, but any player who can play on two thirds of a series at a high level as value to an NFL team.
Draft Projection: Late 3rd-Early 5th Round