Entering his junior season, Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson has made just two starts and attempted only 78 passes so far in his collegiate career. Even so, it’s possible that Johnson could come out of his junior season as the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the 2016 NFL draft.
Johnson’s lack of playing time thus far makes Cardale Jones’ film look extensive. But like Jones, the fill-in quarterback who became an instant phenom in leading Ohio State to three wins and a national championship at the end of last season, Johnson has a combination of size, arm strength and pocket-passing potential that makes him one of the most intriguing prospects in the entire nation.
Whether Johnson ultimately emerges as a top prospect will be determined by his performance for the Tigers this fall, but he has already demonstrated tools and playmaking ability in limited action to give NFL scouts and draft analysts reason enough to be excited about his upside.
Physical Gifts, Passing Promise Already Apparent
As he takes over the Auburn offense this fall, Johnson will be looking to follow in the footsteps of Cam Newton, who parlayed a Heisman Trophy-winning junior year for the Tigers in 2010—his only season as a starter at the Football Bowl Subdivision—into being selected with the No. 1 overall pick by the Carolina Panthers in the 2011 NFL draft.
Physically, Johnson could pass for a replica of Newton. Listed at 6’5”, 240 pounds, Johnson has size that stands out every time he steps on the field.
Also like Newton, Johnson offers a cannon arm that would already be one of the strongest in the NFL. Even with his limited opportunities to play, Johnson has already displayed on numerous occasions that he can drive the ball deep down the field, and do so with accuracy and velocity.
In the following clip, from Johnson’s freshman year against Florida Atlantic in 2013, he delivered a picturesque deep ball 48 yards through the air to connect with wide receiver Sammie Coates for a 67-yard touchdown.
Last season against Arkansas, he put a ball right on the money for Coates approximately 55 yards downfield. While it might look in the clip below as though Johnson overthrew Coates, the pass likely would have been caught for a touchdown had the Arkansas defensive back covering Coates not committed defensive pass interference, which was called.
One more demonstration of Johnson’s arm comes from Auburn’s game last season against LSU. While the play as a whole has limited value for evaluators, as Johnson was lined up as a wide receiver in a trick-play formation, it is an excellent example of his arm strength as he completed a pass to Coates 47 yards downfield while throwing from just inside the right-side numbers to just inside the left-side numbers.
Johnson’s arm strength is not only apparent on deep balls but also in the zip he is able to put on throws to the intermediate level, like he did to hit Duke Williams in stride 20 yards downfield on the following throw against Arkansas last season that turned into a 62-yard gain.
Projecting forward to the NFL, Johnson’s ability to deliver the ball out of his hand quickly and with consistent velocity will be key for him to succeed, as those traits will enable him to complete passes with necessary timing and precision between tight windows.
As Gus Malzahn said of Johnson at SEC media days earlier this month (h/t Brandon Marcello of AL.com), “He can flat out throw it.”
Where Johnson fails to compare with Newton is as a runner.
Despite his size, Johnson has yet to show a regular ability to break tackles as a runner, while he also lacks the speed and agility that Newton possesses. He does exhibit comfort in throwing the ball on the run, which can lead to scrambling for positive yardage in some situations, but he has not had much success to this point in his career on designed runs.
Johnson reportedly told ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg this April that he has run a 4.51-second 40-yard dash, but his film is not indicative of him bringing that degree of athleticism to the field.
Regardless of what his 40 time might ultimately be, Johnson acknowledged at SEC media days that his skill set is not the same as what Newton brought to the Auburn offense.
"Cam is Cam and I'm me," Johnson said, according to Marcello. "I don't too much compare myself to Cam. We're different people. We've got different talents.”
The good news for Johnson, especially looking forward to the NFL, is that he does not need to be a dual-threat runner—and should not be penalized in the draft for his limitations in that regard—if he can be a great passer.
How effectively Johnson can lead an offense will be uncertain until he gets more meaningful game action under his belt, but he has already shown glimpses of advanced pocket-passing prowess that could make NFL scouts fall in love with him this upcoming season.
Altogether, Johnson has completed more than 73 percent of his passing attempts in his career, while averaging 11 yards per attempt.
Numbers without context, of course, are not very useful in the evaluation of an NFL draft prospect.
|Jeremy Johnson's Passing Stats at Auburn|
It is fair to suggest that Johnson’s statistical performance has been inflated by the fact that the vast majority of his playing time has come against inferior opponents (Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic in 2013) and/or in late-game mop-up duty. Over the course of a full season in which he will be playing many tough defenses within the Southeastern Conference, Johnson’s impressive averages will almost certainly decrease.
That being said, it’s also not as if Johnson has puffed up his numbers by dinking and dunking the ball around in a tempo offense. The following chart, which I compiled after watching all the throws that Johnson has made in Auburn games to this point, shows that nearly half of his completions to date (26 of 57) have been on passing attempts of 10 yards or more from the line of scrimmage.
With the exception of throws of 20 yards or longer to the right side of the field—an area in which he has yet to complete a pass in his Auburn career—Johnson has been successful on at least half of his passing attempts to every other area of the field.
As the chart also indicates, Johnson has frequently had success when throwing off play action, completing more than 70 percent of passing attempts on plays in which he has faked a handoff.
For an inexperienced quarterback, Johnson demonstrates an impressive ability to utilize fakes of all sorts to his advantage and to progress off them to find open receivers.
The following play from last year’s Arkansas game was one such example. By pump-faking as if to throw a screen pass to Coates, Johnson fooled three Razorbacks defenders into cheating up toward the line of scrimmage. This enabled Williams to get open behind those defenders, and Johnson took advantage by progressing his eyes to the middle of the field and connecting with Williams on an 18-yard strike.
Another example came last season against Louisiana Tech. By faking two handoffs, first to the running back alongside him and then to a wide receiver running a jet sweep motion, Johnson enticed Louisiana Tech’s left cornerback to move up as if to play the run, enabling Williams to get open on a 14-yard crossing route to the left side, which Johnson found for an easy completion.
Appearing to be a generally smart decision-maker, Johnson showed improvement between 2013, when he was intercepted twice on forced throws into coverage over the deep middle, and 2014, when he did not commit any turnovers.
Seemingly comfortable going through his progressions and making multiple reads within a play, Johnson does not simply rely on his physical tools to make things happen. Ultimately, his ability to win mentally is what could enable him to maximize his physical gifts and become a star quarterback prospect.
What Johnson Needs to Prove in 2015
Altogether, Johnson needs to prove this upcoming season that he can string together the positive traits he has displayed in limited action and put them to work consistently as he becomes entrusted with leading the Auburn offense week in and week out.
To this point in his career, Johnson has yet to be thrust into a situation in which he has had to carry his team to a victory late in a game. Those situations, whenever they might present themselves, will provide a true test of Johnson’s ability to maintain his composure and make big plays in the clutch.
Another area in which Johnson remains largely untested is in dealing with pressure. The ability to make sound decisions and throw with accuracy against the rush often plays a make-or-break role in the success or failure of young quarterbacks, and to this point in his collegiate career, Johnson has yet to be in a game situation in which he has to deal with repeated heat in his face.
Given the composure and ability to make quick reads that Johnson has shown in limited action, it would seem likely that he will be able to continue to thrive under pressure. An example came in the aforementioned game against Louisiana Tech, in which he was able to complete a 15-yard touchdown pass to tight end C.J. Uzomah despite having a rusher diving at his feet.
Even on that play, however, you can see that Johnson’s mechanics started to break down as he ran out of room to maneuver. To prove to NFL teams in 2015 that he is worthy of being a top draft choice in 2016, he will need to show that he can stand tall in the pocket against the rush and continue to deliver on-target passes down the field.
As a whole, Johnson’s ball placement could be better. He has a tendency to throw passes a bit too high, forcing his receivers to leap up to catch them, while he will also miss behind his intended targets at times.
Another regard in which NFL scouts could have concerns with Johnson could be with his footwork. Having worked all but exclusively out of the shotgun formation at Auburn, his ability to be a dropback passer could be questioned. Those questions might not be answered in 2015, however, unless Auburn makes unexpected changes to its offense this year.
Once Johnson starts taking every snap in every game, it will become more readily apparent what he needs to work on going forward, as opposing defenses will start to expose his flaws. Going into the season, however, the most important step for Johnson is to prove that the passing promise he has shown can carry over into regular action as a starting quarterback.
Can Johnson Become the 2016 Draft’s Top Quarterback?
While Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota were already widely projected to be the top quarterbacks in the 2015 NFL draft at this time last year, there is no consensus this summer as to who the top quarterbacks will be in the 2016 draft. The door is open for a physically gifted quarterback like Johnson to break out from obscurity and shoot all the way up to the top of the board.
That’s not to say Johnson won’t have steep competition.
California junior Jared Goff, who already has two years of starting experience under his belt, ranks as the most NFL-ready quarterback prospect in college football this year. Ohio State’s Cardale Jones, as aforementioned, is just as physically gifted, if not more so, than Johnson.
Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg, Michigan State’s Connor Cook, Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, USC’s Cody Kessler and Cincinnati’s Gunner Kiel are also among the quarterbacks who could garner first-round consideration next spring.
Johnson, truly, is the biggest wild card in the mix. He projects to have the highest upside of the entire group and could prove to be the best passer in the nation, but it is also possible that he could crash and burn, making all of the preseason hype look silly. At this point, it really is unknown how good Johnson actually is.
Nonetheless, Johnson should be on the radar of every team—or at least every team that might need a quarterback next offseason—until that becomes clear.
There’s no guarantee that Johnson will declare for the NFL draft after this season; in fact, it would probably be in his best interest to stay at Auburn for his senior year, given his lack to experience to this point.
If Johnson lives up to the lofty expectations, however, the allure of an early-round selection in the NFL draft could be tough to pass up.
In his preliminary big board for the 2016 draft, Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller ranked Johnson as the “Biggest Sleeper” in the quarterback class.
Sleeping on Johnson, however, could be a big mistake if you’re looking to make a bet on who the next great quarterback to emerge from college football will be, as Draft Breakdown’s Shane Alexander noted earlier this week.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.