Anthony Johnson was only a rotational player on the LSU defensive line last season, but he has the talent to emerge as a first-round prospect for the 2014 NFL draft with a breakout junior year.
LSU is replacing both of their starting defensive tackles (Bennie Logan and Josh Downs) from last season, which should put Johnson in position for a starting spot. He should receive heavy playing time and could be in line to become the new star of the Tigers defensive line.
The Tigers are also replacing three defensive ends who were NFL draft picks last season (Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery and Lavar Edwards).
It is always challenging to project how a player will perform when he moves from a rotational role into a starting spot. It is especially difficult with Johnson. He is making a big step from being the sixth or seventh player in the LSU defensive line rotation to the line's key cog one season later.
That said, it is far from unprecedented for a defensive lineman to rise from rotational player to first-round pick in one season. In fact, Michael Brockers was only a rotational defensive tackle for LSU two years ago, when he declared for the 2012 NFL draft. Brockers ended up being the No. 14 overall selection.
Johnson will have the opportunity to play consistently as a junior, so his skills will certainly be put to the test. But if he can transition his impressive flashes of play from his sophomore season into consistent play as a junior, he has the potential to follow in Brockers' footsteps as a top-15 draft selection.
Throughout the months of June and July, we are looking ahead to the 2014 draft here at Bleacher Report and breaking down 10 of the top defensive linemen in the upcoming draft class.
This week, we take a closer look at the potential Johnson put on display in his sophomore season, and what he must prove as a junior to live up to his first-round potential.
Johnson is a very good athlete for a defensive tackle. He has quick feet and displays the ability to cover ground all the way out to the sideline. He is a nimble athlete who does a good job maintaining his balance through low blocks.
He is quick off the snap and has good acceleration. He displays good speed on tape and has reportedly run a 4.7-second 40-yard dash, according to LSU’s official athletics website. Though his time will likely be slower in pre-draft workouts, he is certainly a special athlete for a defensive tackle.
Johnson weighed more than 330 pounds as a freshman, but has trimmed down to 295 pounds, according to LSU’s official athletics website.
Slimming down should help Johnson maintain his athletic advantages, which give him high upside as an interior penetrator who can pursue plays in the backfield. It is important, however, that Johnson maintains his strength and power through his weight loss.
Johnson has displayed the versatility at LSU to line up anywhere on the interior defensive line spot—between the 0-technique nose tackle spot to the 3-technique penetrator spot. The following screenshots demonstrate the numerous spots he can line up on a defensive front.
His decreasing weight, however, could limit that versatility. At 6'3" and 295 pounds with great athleticism, he has very good measurables for the 3-technique spot but would have to bulk back up to play nose tackle regularly in an NFL defense.
He has displayed the power, strength and aggression to be a 1-gap nose tackle in a 4-3—and his game may be better suited to play that role than as a 3-technique penetrator—but he must show it consistently at his new playing weight in his junior season.
Strengths of His Game
Even though Johnson was not an every-down or every-series player last season at LSU, he frequently drew double-teams when he was on the field. If he can continue to do so at the next level, he could be a very effective interior defensive lineman.
Johnson is a physical defender who does a good job taking on opponents with his strength and physicality to occupy blockers and open lanes for his teammates to make plays. He uses his length well to spread blockers out or work his way between them.
He is a strong run defender who is good with gap control. He rarely gets driven back off the line of scrimmage and is good at recovering to stay within a play if he does get pushed back initially. He is a very sound tackler who does a good job wrapping up his opponent and taking them down to the ground.
Johnson gets very good jumps off the snap, with which he is often able to beat his blocker into the field—either with his speed or by driving into his opponent with momentum. He can utilize his athleticism to chase down a quarterback or ball-carrier in pursuit, and also transfer his quickness to power as a bull-rusher.
His game as a pass-rusher is very much a work in progress, but his combination of athleticism and strength give him a lot of raw upside in getting after the quarterback. The following example versus Ole Miss is a display of his pass-rushing potential.
Although initially engaged by his opponent, Johnson is able to use his strength to push the blocker aside and slide off of him, then use his speed and movement ability to chase down the quarterback for an 11-yard sack. (Video courtesy of Draft Breakdown.)
Another example of his athleticism and pass-rushing potential came on the following play last season versus Florida. Johnson was actually cut down by a low block, which he is usually able to stand up through, but he showed his ability to get off the ground and accelerate quickly to lead the effort for a deep sack.
Johnson’s quick feet can also be used as an asset on stunt plays. He has good ability to run around the edge for a defensive tackle and can bring pressure on outside stunts.
Overall, Johnson is a very gifted player with a lot of raw potential. He has the upside to develop into a very good NFL defensive tackle, and he is a disruptive playmaker at and behind the line of scrimmage. To ensure an early draft selection, however, his game must continue to progress in his junior season.
How He Must Develop in 2013
Johnson's game made significant strides over the course of his sophomore season, but he should continue to make progress this season with a significant increase in repetitions. Playing in a full-time starter role, however, will also expose his flaws if his game does not develop.
Johnson needs to become significantly better with the use of his hands. While he is physical with his hands and can work blockers off with his power, he has a very limited arsenal of inside pass-rushing moves. While he has shown the ability to beat opponents with quickness and speed, he has not yet shown that he can break down pass-protection with his hands.
As a result of his limited hand skills, Johnson has trouble disengaging from blockers if he cannot win on sheer power. He struggles to counter blocker engagement, and at less than 300 pounds, he will not be able to overpower his competition on a consistent basis. As a result, Johnson can be completely controlled at times even by single blockers.
Johnson can win battles with his strength, but he doesn't dominate with it. He doesn't frequently drive opponents back into the backfield. While he does not often get driven back, he does get knocked down to the ground more often than he should.
Technical development is certainly a necessity this season for Johnson, but increased playing time should help speed his progression. As he transitions to a starting role this year, he must prove that he can be an every-down and every-series player.
Johnson's motor appeared to run hot and cold during limited playing time last season. With a significant increase in snaps per game, Johnson will have to show that he can maintain his stamina and play hard throughout the course of a game.
Projecting Johnson's Fit and Draft Stock
Johnson's draft stock is heavily reliant upon his play in his junior season. He could end up being a very high draft choice with a breakout year. If he fails to develop as quickly as hoped, he would be best suited in returning his senior season in 2014.
That said, he realistically looks like a second-round pick based upon his measurables, upside and sophomore tape. He is a terrific athlete for the defensive tackle position and has definite ability to make plays in the backfield (10 tackles for loss in limited action).
Johnson is best suited to play in a 4-3 defensive scheme. He will be scouted as a 3-technique defensive tackle given his measurables, and he could develop into an excellent interior penetrator. That said, he could also play 1-technique situationally, especially in pass-rushing situations, for his ability to occupy multiple blockers and provide a physical presence at the line of scrimmage.
He is not a natural fit at either nose tackle or 5-technique defensive end for a traditional, two-gap 3-4 defense. He might be able to play nose tackle with some defensive end in a one-gap 3-4 defense (the Houston Texans run an example of this defensive philosophy), but his potential would likely be maximized by a four-man front.
Johnson's draft stock could be a very fluid matter over the course of his junior season. A strong season, however, could put him in position to be the next player in a long line of LSU defenders to be first-round draft picks.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.