While San Jose State is not exactly a factory for producing elite NFL linebackers, Travis Johnson has a chance to be a diamond in the rough.
Johnson is the all-time WAC leader in sacks, but does the reigning 2012 WAC Defensive Player of the Year have what it takes to play a valuable role for an NFL team?
+ Array of pass-rush moves.
+ Quick first step, underrated flexibility and balance.
+ High-effort, smart, physical player.
+ Tremendous production.
- Tweener who is undersized for a defensive end.
- Little to no experience in coverage.
- Gets tied up in the run game.
- Played against lesser competition.
While listed as a defensive end, Johnson will almost have to make the transition to outside linebacker at 240 pounds. As a 3-4 defensive end, he will still likely have to put on an additional 10-15 pounds before he can be considered as anything more than a situational player. His arms measure at an average length of 31.5".
At 6'1", he does have the frame to add any necessary weight, but it remains to be seen whether he can do so without taking away from his burst. He ran a solid 4.88 40 at his pro day, but that time would take a nosedive if he were carrying an additional 15 pounds. He does, however, have underrated flexibility and balance as a pass-rusher.
Known as one of the leaders of the San Jose State team, there are no off-field concerns surrounding Johnson.
Travis did stand up at times, but it was usually as a defensive end in "under" fronts, and his responsibilities did not change. Otherwise, he had his hand in the dirt playing almost exclusively as a right defensive end (lined up against the left tackle) in a classic 4-3 front.
Johnson rarely, if ever, dropped into coverage at San Jose State. With his size, he will have to pick up complex coverage concepts quickly if he is going to find a role on an NFL team.
If Johnson is going to stick on an NFL roster, it will be because of his ability to rush the passer in obvious passing downs.
Right off the bat, Johnson's initial quickness is evident. He is fast off the line and has great closing speed. While he does not overpower tackles with his bull rush, he has a great first step that gives him an advantage early in the down.
While he did not show it consistently, Johnson flashed great flexibility and balance with his ability to "bend" around offensive tackles when rushing around the edge. Notice how Johnson is at nearly a 45 degree angle as he closes in on the quarterback:
The best aspect of Johnson's game is his ability to use his hands to get around offensive tackles. He has an array of moves, and when he is engaged early in the down, he has the ability to wrestle free and make a tackle.
This play below is an example of one of Johnson's best moves, the "club." Johnson beats the opposing tackle easily by extending his arm over his shoulder, propelling him to the quarterback for the easy sack:
Johnson lacks great power and his arms may not be as long as some of the other elite NFL rushers, but his technique and relentless motor are unquestionable.
Against the Run
Johnson's relentlessness in the passing game translates against the run, as he plays with a ton of physicality on every snap, even if the play is not to his side (which was almost exclusively the right defensive end side).
However, Johnson tends to get his hands tied up easily early in the down. He is usually able to outwork offensive linemen to get the job done, but effort and grit are not going to work nearly as often in the NFL.
He has average arm length (31.5"), which makes it harder for him to "stack and shed" offensive linemen. In the screenshot below, notice how his arms are not extended as he relies on his relentless effort to push his lineman back:
This kind of technique in the run game works at the college level against weaker competition, but NFL offensive linemen are not going to give in to sheer effort.
Johnson is a sound tackler in the run game, but there were several instances in which Travis was shaken loose by a quarterback he had dead to rights. While an explosive player, he appeared to get a bit too excited before closing the deal on a sack and let a handful of sacks slip through his fingers.
While he may not have the size to hold up in the run game at the next level, he plays with a high level of intelligence when diagnosing and reacting to what he sees, particularly the run game.
Travis is a smart player, able to find the ball easily and maintain leverage. He held contain when necessary and collapsed inside when he was "allowed" to.
Here, Johnson immediately sees the run develop, but is instinctively careful not to chase down the ball-carrier. He holds his contain until the runner is level with him.
As soon as the runner is on the same plane as Johnson, Johnson explodes out of his break and takes down the runner from the opposite play side. This play is evidence of intelligence, hustle and burst.
The question surrounding Travis in this area of his game is whether he can play with as much leverage and strength at a new weight against much better competition.
Future Role/Scheme Versatility
Whoever drafts Johnson is betting on the fact that he can will learn how to play out in space sooner rather than later, because at 240 pounds, Johnson is going to have to make the transition to outside linebacker if he is going to stick on an NFL roster for the long term.
Initially, Johnson is going to make his bones as a quality special teams player, contributing on defense strictly as a rotational pass-rusher. As he builds his strength and adjusts to a new position, Johnson can eventually make the transition as a 3-4 outside linebacker—if a team is patient enough to wait.
Draft Projection: Late fifth to late sixth round
Pro-day stats per CBSSports.com.