Talented underclassmen currently own the receiver position at the NCAA level. Justyn Ross, Jerry Jeudy, Rondale Moore and Laviska Shenault all landed inside the top-10 on the 2019 PFF College 50, our list of the top-50 college football players entering the 2019 season.
The youngsters, though deserving of such high praise, have stolen the spotlight away from Minnesota senior Tyler Johnson, college football’s best senior wide receiver returning to Saturday action in 2019. But odds are he won’t stay out of the spotlight for long.
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Johnson finished the 2018 season ranked second in receiving grade (90.7), fourth in yards per route run average (3.35) and ninth in percentage of target resulting in a first down or touchdown (48.4%) among the 99 Power 5 wide receivers with 50 or more targets a year ago. He also ranked sixth among the 36 Power 5 wideouts with 15-plus contested targets in contested-catch percentage (55.2%).
“Size, speed and some of the crispest routes in college football — Johnson’s got all the traits to get open consistently at the NFL level,” per PFF Lead Draft Analyst Mike Renner’s note in his 2020 NFL Draft Guide.
But Johnson opted against declaring for the 2019 NFL Draft and testing his talents in the NFL this upcoming season, deciding to return to the Twin Cities to refine his craft.
In a July interview with PFF, Johnson said he’s spent much of the offseason working to develop stronger, more consistent hands. He’s logged 17 drops in his previous two seasons with the Golden Gophers, a high figure he wants no part of moving forward.
Johnson also said he’s worked with his teammates on his off days to improve as a route-runner, which comes as a bit of a surprise considering that he’s already one of the best route-runners in the country. The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder brings a diverse release package to the table along with elite short-area quickness and body control, and that allows him to create separation at all levels of the field.
An area where he’s specifically excelled is at the intermediate level of the field, which is truly a testament to his route-running ability. He led all FBS receivers with 25 or more targets at the intermediate level (10-19 air yards) in receiving grade (93.1), catching 30-of-46 such targets for 550 yards, 24 first downs and three touchdowns in the process. He also ranked 12th in yards per intermediate target (11.96) among the same group qualifiers.
When asked if he had a go-to route he wants to hear called in the huddle on critical downs, Johnson answered as you’d expect. He needs no one route to be successful, and he needs none of the praise.
“I feel comfortable with all the routes,” Johnson said. “Our coaching staff does a great job with seeing what’s best to run. And the quarterbacks do a great job of putting the ball where it needs to be.”
And he’s not wrong.
Johnson’s 84.5 receiving grade on third and fourth downs this past season ranked fourth among the 60 Power 5 wide receivers with 20 or more targets on such downs a year ago. He moved the chains or scored on 20-of-40 targets on third and fourth downs, ranking inside the top-20 among qualifiers.
Among the 125 Power 5 wideouts with 25 or more routes run in the red zone in 2018, Johnson ranked second behind Clemson’s Tee Higgins in receiving grade (89.7). Johnson caught 14-of-25 targets for 10 touchdowns and one first down across 49 routes run in the red zone this past season, ranking eighth among qualifiers in percentage of targets resulting in a first down or score (44%).
While Johnson will credit his coaches, quarterback and Minnesota’s scout team for his successes on such downs, he did speak to the work he puts in the film room each week and through the offseason that plays a significant role in his gameday production.
“Throughout the whole week, I pay close attention to the defensive backs,” Johnson said. “I figure out how they align, how they cover, their press technique, little things like that just so I can have a plan for whenever I’m going against them during the game.”
Johnson puts in the work to study his opponents, his own tape and one of the NFL’s best route-runners in Minnesota Vikings standout Stefon Diggs. Johnson said he spends countless hours watching Diggs in an effort to pull things from his game (e.g., how he attacks the ball, his releases, route breaks).
And fortunately for Johnson, he’s not too far off from joining Diggs as one the league’s best route-runners. Soon, much of the NFL tape he studies will be his own.