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NFL breakout players 2018: Austin Johnson is ready for a bigger role with the Titans defense

Tennessee should have no trouble finding a way to get Johnson on the field.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, Tennessee Titans defensive lineman Austin Johnson did an admirable job at the end of the season filling in for starting defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, who tore his biceps muscle in a Week 13 matchup with the Houston Texans. Johnson went on to start three out of the last four regular season games, one of the two playoff games and acquitted himself quite well.

At 6’4, 315 pounds, Johnson is a big, powerful dude, but he is also athletic enough to play all over the defensive line.

Last year the Titans had him line up everywhere from a tight 5-technique shaded heavy on an offensive tackle to a zero nose head up on the center. And he looked pretty damn comfortable in all of those alignments, which isn’t exactly a common sight. His versatility was impressive and he fit right in no matter where he lined up.

Johnson managed to notch 24 tackles and a sack last season. Along the way, he showed Tennessee he’s ready for an expanded role on defense. DaQuan Jones will be back this year, and he was having the best season of his career prior to getting hurt, but Johnson should at least be allowed to compete with him for the starting position. Iron sharpens iron and a competition between the former Penn State teammates is likely to bring out the best in both of them. As well as Jones has played as a starter for the Titans over the last three seasons, his old college backup might just end up being an upgrade.

Even if he isn’t a starter this year, after what he showed last season, Johnson’s playing time should certainly increase.

The Titans will see a tremendous boost in Johnson’s production this season with more reps. With a new head coach, Mike Vrabel, and a new defensive coordinator, Dean Pees, there are still a lot of question marks about how the defense will look at this point. How much will they use a traditional 3-4 alignment versus four down defensive linemen? How much will they stunt versus just lining up and playing? How much will they rely on their defensive front for their pass rush versus how much they will blitz?

For a guy with Johnson’s versatility and talent, however, there will almost assuredly be a role for him to play, no matter how those questions get answered. And if he does end up as a backup again, and someone ends up going down with an injury, Johnson should be able to fill in and do a great job at any spot along their defensive line.

Regardless of what his role is ultimately decided to be this season, if he stays healthy, Austin Johnson’s stats should take a big leap forward this year. He will be a vital part of the Titans defense.

Confidence level: Moderate