The Vikings have one of the best, if not the best nose tackles in the NFL right now in Linval Joseph. He doesn’t play much at all on passing downs, but Joseph is damn near unmovable against the run and has a knack for getting to the football if it is anywhere in his vicinity. Incredibly, in light of the position he plays and all the pounding his body takes, Joseph has only missed six games since the start of the 2011 season.
With a guy who is that reliable, it is not easy for his backup to make much of a difference, but the Vikings have a guy in Jaleel Johnson who might be able to do just that this season.
Johnson isn’t quite as big as Joseph, but Johnson isn’t much easier to move all the same. There were times while watching the film from last season when it was hard for me to discern which of those two guys was actually in the game, in fact. It seems obvious to me that Johnson has wisely taken a lot of tips from the way Joseph plays the game and incorporated an almost identical style of playing the run.
I won’t say Johnson is the same level of run defender Joseph is ... yet.
But there doesn’t seem to be much of a dropoff inside when Johnson is in the game, that’s for sure.
Where Johnson may actually have Joseph beat is he is a bit more athletic than the 30-year-old Joseph. Don’t get me wrong: Joseph isn’t some stiff out there either, but Johnson appears to be faster and thus can make more plays outside of his general area than Joseph can at this point in his long and fruitful career.
Johnson also flashes a quick get-off from time to time, which allows him to be a little more of a penetrator than Joseph at this point, too.
Now, I am not advocating that the Vikings move on from Joseph, because I think he is still a dog who helps to set the tempo up front. However, I will say if Joseph missed any time due to injury this year, I don’t think the Vikings would have much trouble with Johnson filling in for him.
Truth be told, if Johnson continues to develop at the rate he has over his first two seasons, then he is likely to make it a lot easier to move on from Joseph whenever the Vikings decide to do so.
In the meantime, Johnson can still break out this season as a backup because he isn’t just a one-trick pony.
He is athletic enough to get after the passer, too. He may not play on a ton of passing downs this year, but I expect he is going to get his fair share of pressure against play-action passing on early downs.
I also love Johnson’s motor and how he run to the ball. He is always trying to get to the play, even when the ball isn’t that close to him. That kind of hustle is going to help him keep stacking numbers on the stat sheet from week to week.
If he makes the most of his opportunities, he should easily best the 13 tackles and 0.5 sack he notched last year over 16 games. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him playing a little backup three-technique in addition to nose tackle, either.
If you watched the Vikings’ first preseason game against the Saints, Johnson perfectly illustrated why I like him so much. He didn’t make any “big” plays, and you might not have even noticed him that much, but on the first drive of the game alone he was in on five tackles. He did a great job of holding the point against the run, but more importantly he stayed active and worked to find the football.
He is a guy who is going to be productive when he is on the field, if for no reason other than his hustle.
Johnson’s primary competition for playing time is likely to come from Hercules Mata’afa and Jalyn Holmes, but I believe those guys are more of a fit at three-technique. That backup nose tackle spot should be all Johnson’s.
I am expecting him to make a big jump this year — one that in all reality, will likely help to ease Joseph out of the door in the next season or so.
Confidence level: Moderate