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Do Rams have a role for wide receiver Tyler Johnson?

Johnson’s wild ride could either continue or end in Los Angeles

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs Los Angeles Rams, 2022 NFC Divisional Playoffs Set Number: X163913 TK1

The Los Angeles Rams signed two veteran wide receivers recently, Tyler Johnson and Demarcus Robinson, but it is perhaps the less established of the two who ends up winning a significant role with the team for the upcoming season. Though Robinson has been in the NFL for seven years and won a Super Bowl with the Kansas City Chiefs, averaging 409 yards per season over the last four of those campaigns, maybe it is Johnson who emerges despite accumulating zero catches in 2022.

Johnson is certainly talking like a guy who expects to compete for a spot on the roster, noting last week how excited he is to be with the Rams:

“It’s all in God’s hands,” Johnson told one-on-one to Heavy. “I’m just coming out here and looking forward to competing, then taking in everything day-by-day. My goal for myself is just get one percent better each day. I’m excited for that and excited for what’s ahead and I can’t wait.”

“[There are] A lot of guys who have played a lot of football. I feel like this group is definitely going to be one of the good groups,” Johnson said. “I’m excited to go out there and work with them plus compete with them as well.”

But for Johnson to win a job as one of Sean McVay and Matthew Stafford’s top three receivers, he’s going to need to reverse course after failing to land a role with the Houston Texans in 2022 or the Las Vegas Raiders this past spring. It’s a far cry from the dominant receiver he was at the University of Minnesota prior to being a fifth round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020 and immediately helping Tom Brady win his seventh Super Bowl.

Tyler Johnson played QB in high school

As a quarterback at Minneapolis North High in the ‘10s, a school that Johnson’s family specifically chose because he could get playing time right away and ignoring fears that the school might actually be shut down.

“I felt like North would be more like a private school because of its smaller size,” said (Tyler Johnson’s father) Tyrone. Sixty-five freshmen entered the new North High in the 2012-2013 school year. “I felt like he had an opportunity. He could play varsity as a freshman and get a good great education,” he said, laughing at the irony of his son having a successful football career and getting a good education from an inner-city school that almost ceased to exist. Tyrone admitted that he and LaCresha initially considered sending Tyler to Holy Angels or Hopkins High.

Despite those concerns in the community, Johnson’s career as a dual threat quarterback and basketball player helped him get a scholarship to the University of Minnesota as a receiver and some say even helped save the school from extinction.

“He played a major role in saving the school,” (basketball coach Larry) McKenzie said. “His decision to stay and go to North High School opened the door and showed it was OK to stay home. It’s because of him that we were able to get other athletes that might have gone other places to stay.”

As a senior quarterback, Johnson led North to the Class A state championship game in football and then they won the state basketball championship months later with his help at guard.

Tyler Johnson was a three-star recruit in the class of 2016, getting offers from Wisconsin, Iowa, and Iowa State, but ultimately staying home and going to Minnesota where he would become one of the best all-around players in school history.

Johnson’s Minnesota legend grows

By the end of his college career, Tyler Johnson had more receiving yards than any other player in Gophers history, surpassing Eric Decker’s 3,119 with 3,305 of his own. Fourth on that list? Tutu Atwell, Sr. from 1994-1997.

Indiana v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

It’s also a lot more than the 2,395 career yards of recent first round pick Rashod Bateman and thought Johnson had an extra season on Bateman, most of his production came over the last three years.

As a 2016 freshman, Johnson caught 14 passes for 141 yards. But he showed a lot of growth as a sophomore under first-year head coach P.J. Fleck, one of the best hires in the history of the program. Though the Gophers struggled that year to a 5-7 record under QB Demry Croft, Johnson had 35 catches for 677 yards and seven touchdowns.

Doesn’t seem like a lot? Consider that the second-highest total on the team was 132 receiving yards and that only one other player on the ENTIRE Minnesota roster caught even one touchdown; Brandon Lingen had two.

Defenses only had to account for Tyler Johnson and he managed to averaged 19.3 yards per catch anyway.

In 2018, Johnson finally got help in the form of quarterback Tanner Morgan and sidekick Bateman. Johnson exploded for 78 catches, 1,169 yards, and 12 touchdowns, ranking second in the Big Ten in yards (behind Rondale Moore) and tied with Moore and Parris Campbell for the most touchdowns.

Johnson could have tested the NFL Draft at that point but opted to return to Minnesota for his senior season, helping the Gophers go 11-2 and finish with a top-10 ranking, their best season since 1962.

As a senior, Johnson caught 86 passes for 1,318 yards and 13 touchdowns, all better numbers than teammate Bateman, although those two ranked first and second in the Big Ten in yards in 2019. By a wide margin, too. Johnson specialized in contested catches and red zone efficiency.

Now Johnson could enter the NFL Draft as one of the most productive receivers in college football. But the league wasn’t as high on Johnson as his statistics would indicate.

Tyler Johnson falls in 2020 NFL Draft

Tyler Johnson, like many others, was significantly impacted by the fact that the traditional combine was cancelled in 2020 because of the pandemic. The entire draft evaluation process was shifted because of the events of 2020 and so there was little he could to help the perception that he lacked the speed necessary to be a top-flight NFL receiver. Some reports indicate that he may have only run a 4.70 in the 40-yard dash, which is borderline undraftable for the position.

So maybe not running was better for Johnson, but ultimately we found out that NFL teams did not believe from watching tape and gathering information that he had the athleticism built for the pros. Despite a standout career at Minnesota and a suitable NFL frame at 6’1, 206 lbs, Johnson wasn’t one of the first 10 receivers drafted.

He wasn’t one of the first 15.

Tyler Johnson was the 20th receiver off the board in 2020, getting selected by the Bucs at 161. He was picked well after the L.A. Rams selected Van Jefferson with the 57th overall pick and the two receivers picked ahead of Johnson—Antonio Gandy-Golden and Joe Reed—combined to catch one pass for three yards in their careers.

Johnson would have some immediate NFL success but the fact that he’s now competing with Jefferson tells you that his arc hasn’t gone as planned.

The highs and lows of the Tom Brady experience

As a rookie on Tampa Bay, Johnson won a job right behind starters Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, essentially holding off competition from Justin Watson, a fifth round pick in 2018. But as the season went on, Johnson fell behind teammate Scotty Miller, a sixth round pick in 2019, and then the Bucs signed Antonio Brown midseason as a true third weapon.

In the playoffs, Johnson caught two passes for 31 yards and was a minor part of Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl run that season.

His career seemingly got better in 2021, as Brown literally quit the team midseason, and Johnson earned a couple of starts down the stretch. Over the final five games in 2021, Johnson caught 16 of 23 targets for 130 yards, then he had five catches for 45 yards in two playoff games. But by another token, that opportunity may have spelled doom for Tyler Johnson.

In his third training camp, the Bucs waived Tyler Johnson and opted instead to go with Julio Jones, Russell Gage, Breshad Perriman, Jaelon Darden, and Miller as depth. He was claimed by the Houston Texans, but worse yet, didn’t last very long and the Texans cut him in late October after two games and 29 snaps with zero catches.

The Bucs gave him a second chance and added him to the practice squad, but he signed a futures contract with the Raiders this past January and was waived again on May 15th. The Rams are Johnson’s fourth team in the last year and that includes two stints with Tampa Bay.

Now playing for Sean McVay, Johnson’s at a make or break point in his NFL career and the competition is intense for a player with his skillset. In his corner is the fact that L.A. doesn’t have anyone well established at receiver aside from Cooper Kupp. Johnson is competing for playing time not only against Jefferson and Robinson, but also Lance McCutcheon, Ben Skowronek, Puka Nacua, and in a way, Tutu Atwell, Jr.,

If McVay keeps six receivers, and that includes Kupp, then that leaves five more spots. Theoretically, four of those five players will be Jefferson, Atwell, Nacua, and Skowronek, who also plays fullback.

Therefore, it could be Johnson against Robinson and McCutcheon, plus Austin Trammell and three undrafted free agent rookies.

Whether Johnson has any advantages over those players is unclear. What is clear, he’s ready to prove skeptics wrong once again.