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The Nico Johnson Debate Part 1


When the Kansas City Chiefs drafted Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson in the 2013 NFL Draft, most fans weighing in on Arrowhead Addict viewed the signing as a positive. After all, the Chiefs were in desperate need of depth at the ILB position. Johnson seemed to be the ideal candidate to replace Jovan Belcher. Johnson is a thumper that can fly into the gaps, eating up blockers and opening things up for Derrick Johnson to make plays. 

Not everyone was on board the Nico Johnson bandwagon, however. Arrowhead Addict senior staff writer Ladner Morse absolutely despised the pick, while fellow staffer, Stacy Smith, applauded the move. 

The two have been sparring in the comments for a couple of weeks now and so we thought we’d let them have it out in a two-part debate right on the main page of Arrowhead Addict. And so, without further ado, we present “The Nico Johnson Debate.” -PA

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SDS: The passing of Jovan Belcher in early-December left the Kansas City Chiefs with a gaping hole in the middle of their defense. The job opening was filled when the Chiefs selected Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson with their fourth-round draft pick. The former high school Butkus Award finalist and Scout.com five-star recruit went on to earn All-SEC Freshman team honors in 2009. Johnson played a key leadership role in a successful Crimson Tide career that netted him three national championships. Having a young football player with that kind of exposure to success will aid the team in cultivating a winning culture in Kansas City.

LM: Yes, Nico Johnson played on national champions for three of the past four years but, was not one of their best players. In the past three years 12 Alabama players have been drafted before the 99th pick in the draft, which is where the Chiefs selected Johnson this year. While many are hoping Nico Johnson would be a full time starter next to Derrick Johnson, his lack of experience and success against the pass make him a liability when the Chiefs face teams who use the pass on all downs. This means Nico Johnson should be viewed as a developmental player. In the 2013 draft, since both New Orleans and Cleveland lost their second round choices, the 99th pick essentially becomes a late THIRD round pick and the Chiefs should not have been targeting a “developmental player” with pick #99 but instead drafting a player who can start immediately and or contribute right away.

SDS: When thinking about those Alabama championship teams, there are a few things to keep in mind. Through the four years of Johnson’s collegiate career, he played with the following: Mark Barron, Dont’a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, C.J. Mosley, Dee Milliner, Dre Kirkpatrick, Marcell Dareus, Josh Chapman, Kareem Jackson, Terrency Cody, and Javier Arenas. The University of Alabama is an NFL factory and the defenses Johnson played on were absolutely loaded. Despite the unusual depth of those Crimson Tide defenses, he made an impact even while having split time with C.J. Mosley and Rolando McClain.

Johnson is often criticized for what he lacks in pass coverage, but he was rarely asked to drop back in Nick Saban’s scheme. His coverage issues tend to be overstated. There simply isn’t enough game tape available to call him a “liability” in that phase of the game. Johnson is an athletic linebacker with servicable speed for the position and light footwork. Given the opportunity, Johnson could well prove that he’s a three-down player. Here’s a short clip that makes a compelling argument that he won’t have two left feet in coverage (taken from Alabama’s Pro Day):

LM: Admittedly, Nico Johnson is a very good athlete but, he can’t be considered Derrick Johnson good. That’s why DJ stays on the field for every defensive down. At Alabama, in passing situations, Nico would come off and C.J. Mosley would go on. If the Tide is pulling NJ in favor of a better pass protector it means he hasn’t gotten experience in that area. Nico Johnson played in 51 games for the Rolling Tide but, only started 20 games including 5 games as a Senior. That’s only 39%. That’s one reason Chiefs fans should only expect him to be a developmental player. The nature of the pro style game has evolved to where a pass can be expected on every down. Also, Nico Johnson’s challenges don’t stop with pass protection. NJ plays with his pads too high. So, what does that really mean? It’s means he doesn’t keep his shoulders low and he allows blockers to get into his body and cut block him with ease. When I wrote a review of Nico in January I said at that time that he could be a developmental prospect and I still believe it’s this tendency to play to high that he’ll have to overcome before he can be seen as an everyday every down starter.

SDS: I’m not sure that it’s fair to compare Nico Johnson with his surname-sharing counterpart just 17 days into his NFL career. While Derrick Johnson is currently heralded as one of the best inside linebackers in the league, he was widely considered a bust before head coach Todd Haley arrived in 2009. Without Haley’s chiding and a scheme change, DJ may never have gotten a contract extension in 2010. It typically takes time for a young linebacker to play at that level in the pros. Nico deserves the same opportunity to grow as a football player.

It’s been said that Johnson struggles in pass coverage, but what exactly is the argument? I’ll concede that he’s not particularly fast, but he makes up for that by knowing his assignment and being in the right places more often than not. He will also follow the quarterback’s eyes to anticipate where the football is going to be thrown. Having a jump in defending the pass typically helps him keep pace with runningbacks and tight ends for short periods of time.

Exhibit A


Watch Johnson (#35) in man coverage against Vanderbilt’s runningback Jerron Seymour (who runs a sub-4.4 in the 40-yard dash). He was able to anticipate the play and stay right on Seymour’s hip. Had quarterback Jordan Rogers completed the pass, Johnson would’ve been right there to make the stop. Instead, he had such good coverage he was able to pick the ball off.

My opponent cited a previous AA article where he expressed concerns about Nico Johnson’s game. In case you missed it, here’s Mr. Morse’s mid-January evaluation of “NJ”:

"Nico Johnson is a not-ready-for-prime-time-player in the NFL but, would make a terrific understudy there and if he’s available in the 4th or 5th round then the Chiefs should bag that Bama brute. Johnson goes 6-1, 245 and for some reason keeps his pads too upright and allows blockers to get their pads lower than his, into his chest and chop block his legs any time they choose. He’s not much of a “bender.” However, Andy Reid is a good teacher and Nico Johnson has all the physical tools so, in the meantime, he’d make a great special teams player."

The fourth round is precisely where Nico Johnson was taken. It would seem that the Chiefs filled an immediate need and got great value from the pick according to my opponent’s pre-draft assessment. The latter point about Johnson’s pad level is well taken. He does tend to “play high” at times. As a general rule, the player with the lower pad level tends to win a direct exchange (leverage is everything). Fortunately for Nico Johnson, this can be corrected with the right coaching and Gary Gibbs (linebackers) is one of the best position coaches on Andy Reid’s staff.

LM: The video of Nico Johnson having a QB throw the ball right to him is impressive. Your right Stacy, it’s absolutely not fair to compare DJ and NJ. But that’s the point, NJ will never be a DJ. One is a first round pick and one is a 4th round pick. However, on draft day I heard many fans saying they think Nico Johnson is the perfect player to step in next to DJ but, that won’t likely be close to being the case.

Let me make something perfectly clear: I hope John Dorsey and Andy Reid were right about Nico Johnson and that he can come in pick up coverage assignments and learn to be instinctive, read NFL offenses and pick blockers off for Derrick Johnson. I also think Nico is a good guy so I hope he makes it for his sake as well.

In an article called “Belcher is KC’s Thumper” written in December of 2011 by Josh Looney, Derrick Johnson tells the real tale of what a good ILB must be and do. He said of Belcher,

"Probably half of my tackles come from Jovan blowing somebody up and I’m scraping over the top,” Johnson said. “He’s not a selfish guy. He knows what he has to do in this defense to allow certain people to scrape over the top for tackles. Sometimes in the 3-4 defense you have to be a sacrifice guy."

To play this role, Nico Johnson must read the play correctly, take out the lead blockers and sacrifice his body to make way for DJ to take a clear path to the ball carrier. Nico has the body to make this happen but, after watching hours of film on him I see a player who over runs plays, shows up late for plays that other team mates have already made and then hoots and hollers at the end.

Chiefs fans should be aware Nico Johnson only made 3.1 tackles per game in his Alabama career. However, the important aspect of the ILB’s game that should be focused on is tacking blockers so DJ and others can make the plays.

In January, when I first evaluated Nico Johnson, I said he would be a good pick in the 4th or 5th rounds. Now it’s clear he should have been a 5th rounder and remember, the 1st pick of the 4th round this year was the equivalent of a late 3rd round pick in any other year. Jamaal Charles was a 3rd round pick but, I can’t see a time when Nico Johnson will ever have the impact of a JC.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you why Johnson should have been a 5th rounder.

The Nico Johnson Debate Part 2 will conclude tomorrow morning.

Look for more fireworks then!