Tennessee Volunteers star linebacker A.J. Johnson is an incredibly gifted run defender, and there were some rumblings that he would declare for the 2014 NFL Draft and would be an intriguing inside linebacker pick for teams. However, Johnson will hold off on the NFL for another year, as Jimmy Hyams reports that Johnson told the Vols coaching staff that he will stay in Knoxville for his senior season and will bypass heading to the draft after his junior year.
It’s great news for Tennessee fans, and it also gives Johnson another year to improve as a player, particularly in coverage. Talented run-stuffing linebackers are still important in the NFL, but there’s a growing emphasis on athletic LBs who can cover and play well in space, as run-stuffing LBs have quickly become two-down players on most defenses. Good coverage linebackers are especially crucial these days, as running backs like Jamaal Charles and uber-athletic TEs like Jimmy Graham become staples in passing offenses; you don’t want to get caught out due to having too many LBs who struggle in coverage.
Johnson was a projected fourth-round pick in the upcoming draft, and he should be able to up his draft stock by a round come 2015, assuming all goes well for him. He had himself an excellent junior season with 106 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, three QB hurries, and three pass break-ups, and he has consistently been a force at LB for Tennessee. I think some people undervalue him as a prospect, because his downhill run-stuffing should make him a quality LB in the pros, even if he is only a two-down LB in schemes.