The Buffalo Bills came into the draft with a need for linebacker depth. It seemed they were probably done selecting linebackers when they chose Louisville’s Preston Brown with their third-round pick, but they went back to the position in Round 7 (No. 221 overall pick) by selecting Florida Atlantic’s Randell Johnson.
Johnson, like many seventh-round picks, is a developmental project who seems to have been selected largely upon the strength of his physical traits.
The 6’3”, 244-pound linebacker posted 40-yard dash times of 4.62 and 4.64 seconds at his pro day, along with a 38.5” vertical jump and 10’ broad jump, according to Gil Brandt of NFL.com.
“Johnson showed good, quick feet and that he can move really well,” Brandt wrote. “Johnson operated okay as an outside linebacker in space.”
The FAU product had a highly productive sophomore season, in which he recorded 91 tackles, including 14.5 tackles for loss, but he was significantly less productive in his final two years with the Owls.
At this point, Johnson seems to be more of an athlete than an NFL-ready football player. He has the range to make plays at many different spots on the field but will need to be technically sound to translate that into next-level success.
He has flashed some ability as a pass-rusher, having recorded 9.5 sacks in his career, but in order to play as a defensive end as the Bills shift to a 4-3 scheme, he would need to bulk up without losing his athleticism. He could, however, be used on the edge in some situations as a situational pass-rusher.
His best fit for Buffalo would seemingly be at strong-side linebacker, where he could be developed behind Keith Rivers and Manny Lawson.
Used mainly as a rusher in passing situations at FAU, he doesn’t have a great deal of experience in coverage, which could be a setback for him in his effort to make Buffalo’s roster.
Where the Bills really needed to add depth at linebacker in this year’s draft was in finding a player who could contribute as a coverage linebacker in sub-packages, but despite his athleticism, Johnson has a long way to go before he can be the player to fill that role.
If Johnson is going to make an impact as a rookie for the Bills, it’s almost certainly going to be special teams, which will make or break his chances of making the 53-man roster. While Buffalo clearly liked his developmental potential enough to warrant him worthy of a draft selection, it won’t save a roster spot for a seventh-round pick unless he could make a meaningful contribution on the field.
As Buffalo’s roster currently stands, he will likely be competing with four or five players for one of two roster spots at linebacker. With Kiko Alonso, Brandon Spikes, Rivers and Brown all roster locks, Johnson’s competition will come from Ty Powell, Nigel Bradham, Nathan Williams and Jacquies Smith.
Every draft pick has a legitimate chance to make the roster, but Johnson will have to earn it.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.
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