Tennessee: Breaking Down A.J. Johnson's Place on 1st 2015 NFL Draft Big Boards

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistMay 14, 2014

Tennessee: Breaking Down A.J. Johnson's Place on 1st 2015 NFL Draft Big Boards

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    The Tennessee Volunteers' participation in the 2015 NFL draft should look a lot like the one just completed—with very few of coach Butch Jones' players hearing their names called.

    However, rising senior middle linebacker A.J. Johnson should be an anomaly.

    He has the potential to experience a similar surge to that of former UT offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James, who saw his stock rise all the way to the 19th overall pick to the Miami Dolphins last week.

    Nobody is predicting the 6'2", 245-pound Johnson to go quite that high next year, but he returned for his senior season on Rocky Top to marinate in the college game for another year.

    It didn't hurt that WNML's Jimmy Hyams reported he was projected as a third-day draft pick.

    Even though the Vols have had some lean times in the draft and on the football field, Johnson has enjoyed a standout career.

    He could help usher in an era reminiscent of a time when UT was churning out NFL talents. Historically, Saturday Down South's Jon Cooper notes that UT still has more draft picks than any other SEC team.

    With a strong senior season, Johnson has the opportunity to add to that list and help keep the positive vibes swirling around Jones' program.

Current Rankings

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Here are some of the latest 2015 big boards and positional rankings from around the Internet and where A.J. Johnson falls in the very early prognostications.

     

    Bleacher Report's Matt Miller: Miller has Johnson as his No. 4 inside linebacker, but also lists him as the biggest question mark at the position.

    CBSSports.com: The rising senior linebacker is third on the list of inside linebackers behind Miami's Denzel Perryman and Georgia's Ramik Wilson.

    AthlonSports.com's Braden Gall: Johnson is the 33rd-ranked player overall, which would slot him as an early second-round pick.

    NFLDraftScout.com: No. 5 inside linebacker.

    DraftSite.com: This site has Johnson going very early in the second round, 35th overall to the Oakland Raiders. He is the first ILB taken off the board.

Johnson's Career to Date

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Johnson has been an absolute tackling machine throughout his three-year career in Knoxville.

    After choosing the Vols over some of the nation's top teams, including Florida, Alabama and Clemson following a standout career at Gainesville (Georgia) High School, he immediately shone in orange and white.

    Starting alongside fellow freshman Curt Maggitt, Johnson completed a duo of freshman linebackers believed to be the first rookies ever to start at the position for UT. They did it pretty much from the start of camp, too.

    He has gone on to start 34 career games for the Vols and has 324 career tackles, including 21.5 tackles for loss.

    "The Beast" led all SEC freshmen with 80 tackles, earning first-team Freshman All-Conference honors. As a sophomore, his 138 tackles led the league and were fourth nationally.

    Johnson is a traditional run-stuffer who is ideally suited to be an interior linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, though he plays in UT's hybrid 4-3.

    Even though he has played for some of the worst defenses in program history, Johnson has thrived. He rarely leaves the field, and with just 90 tackles, will finish his career second all-time at UT.

Outlook for 2014 Season

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    USA TODAY Sports

    More talent than ever before will surround A.J. Johnson when he suits up for his senior season, but there will never be a bigger opportunity for him to shine.

    With the Vols breaking in an entirely new defensive line and with youth and inexperience beside him at the other linebacker spots, Johnson must anchor—and even carryUT's revamped unit. And he'll have to excel in every aspect of the game.

    Despite Johnson's tackling prowess, he has looked awful in space at times in the past.

    Lateral quickness and coverage skills are not his forte, and while he will have help in that area with more athletic teammates like Jalen Reeves-Maybin and incoming freshman Dillon Bates in the fold, Johnson would love to show he can play that game.

    If he improves his football speed and continues to grow in the instinctual aspects of the game, his draft stock will go through the roof.

    Toward the end of 2013, defensive coordinator John Jancek was excited about the strides Johnson had made. Following an extremely active game against Vanderbilt, Jancek gushed to GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required) about his leader.

    He spoke of what Johnson's return coupled with a healthy Maggitt would mean.

    "Their leadership is really huge," Jancek said. "When you talk about them having the pulse of the team, those guys, when they say something, people are gonna listen."

    Johnson has always produced the numbers, but he has never been the vocal leader on the field. This year, he has no choice but to be.

Where Johnson Will Be Drafted

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    USA TODAY Sports

    There is a lot to love about A.J. Johnson if you're a NFL general manager.

    He has the prototypical middle linebacker body for the league, is always around the football, is one of the nation's best run-stopping 'backers and gobbles up tackles like Pac-Man.

    But his lack of top-end speed (4.73 40-yard dash on NFLDraftScout) and past struggles in covering running backs and tight ends could cause him to drop.

    Those shortcomings are reasons to question his next-level ability.

    On Bleacher Report expert Matt Miller's final '14 big board, eight of his top 11 middle linebackers were selected. Alabama's C.J. Mosley was the first inside 'backer taken, going 17th overall to Baltimore. Nine total players listed as ILBs by NFL.com were taken in the draft.

    As Miller's No. 4 ILB, Johnson falls safely in that range, so there's an excellent chance he gets drafted at a position where some of the best (see: Stanford's Shayne Skov and Florida State's Christian Jones) wind up signing free-agent contracts.

    This is a big season for Johnson to prove his doubters wrong. With more talent around him, he has to improve his playmaking ability. Throughout his career, he simply has not made enough big plays.

    He also needs to make strides in his pass coverage and sideline-to-sideline play.

    This will be the first time in his career Johnson has the opportunity to play for the same defensive coordinator for more than one season. Comfort in the system should allow him to excel in the areas where he needs to show the most improvement.

    If he does so, Johnson will at least be drafted in the third round and could surge all the way into the top 40 picks of the draft.