It is not often that a guy breaks out after six years in the league. But that is exactly what I'm expecting Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Tom Johnson to do this season.
Johnson has mostly been a backup with both the Saints and the Vikings, but that hasn't stopped him from putting together some pretty productive years in the league. In 2014, while starting only two out of 16 games, Johnson was still able to notch six and a half sacks. In 2015, with eight more starts in another 16 games, he was able to get to five sacks. Last season he only had two sacks, but he also missed two regular season games and didn't have any starts.
So why do I think Johnson will be better this season?
Because air is about to meet something called opportunity. Let me explain.
Last season Sharrif Floyd only played in the first game of the year before complications from knee surgery forced him to miss the rest of the season. Floyd's knee is still a problem and the Vikings placed him on the NFI list as training camp opened. Shamar Stephen who ended up starting all 16 games last season now appears to be working as the backup at nose tackle to Linval Joseph.
That means that for the very first time in his career Johnson looks to be a Week 1 starter.
If he can stay healthy, Johnson absolutely could be looking at a double-digit sack season with his abilities as an interior pass rusher. He has this quick swim/arm over that he wins damn near at will.
Sometimes, he uses it with a jab ole on the right side when he wants to make an inside move.
Sometimes, he uses it as his escape move after starting off with a bull rush on the left side.
No matter how he uses it, the end result is usually Johnson beating the guy trying to block him.
He's also so quick off the ball against the run and the pass that you almost always see him getting upfield push against the offensive linemen trying to block him. It’s the kind of push that forces a running back to cut back to his help, the kind of push that could also collapse the pocket against a play-action pass.
I really feel like Johnson has had the skill to be the Vikings' full-time three-technique the last few years, but he just didn't really get the opportunity until now. The timing couldn't have been better, since his opportunity comes when he is still in good health and when his technique is as good or better than it has ever been.
I think he is going to take a huge leap forward with his production this season as he finally wins a starting job. That's why, even going into his seventh season, I selected Tom Johnson to be the Vikings' breakout player of 2017.