Should the Vikings Take a Chance on Tyler Johnson?

Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With 20 days remaining until the 2020 NFL Draft, mock drafts have continued to flood the internet. As the popularity of “Build Your Own Mock Draft” machines have increased — especially with many confined to their houses — there seems to be a consensus around everyone that has conducted a mock for the Minnesota Vikings.

That is, taking Tyler Johnson in the fourth or fifth round.

Just like Sonny Weaver Jr. was obsessed with Vontae Mack in Draft Day, Vikings fans are enamored in keeping the Minneapolis native at home. Part of that is the numbers he put up in his senior season with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, leading the Big Ten with 86 catches and 1,318 yards while adding 13 touchdowns. It may also be a leftover wave of euphoria since Minnesota’s best season in nearly a century.

But Johnson’s emergence as an NFL Draft prospect coincides with a need for the Vikings heading into the draft. The Vikings jettisoned Stefon Diggs in a trade with Buffalo and even after the signing of Tajae Sharpe, they have just Adam Thielen, Olabisi Johnson and Chad Beebe on the roster.

An influx of talent is needed and as other mocks have chiseled Justin Jefferson in stone, Johnson could be a cheaper alternative later in the draft, allowing the Vikings to spend their early picks on a cornerback or the offensive line. But will he actually be there by the time the Vikings are on the clock? And could he be available much later than many anticipate?

The answer lies in what Johnson does well as a wide receiver. Pro Football Focus gave him the highest receiving grade (92.2) of anyone in this year’s class and his 3.64 yards per route run ranked fifth in the nation among receivers with over 300 snaps.

But Johnson also has a knack for finding his way open thanks to his route running ability. Much like Diggs did with the Vikings, Johnson is able to find a way to win early, making his quarterback’s job easier and with a 66.7 percent contested-catch rate, he usually finds a way to come down with the ball.

But there’s also a downside to Johnson’s game in terms of his speed. Johnson has been criticized for his lack of top-end speed to separate from defenders. His decision to not participate in the combine drills will also be a factor as Johnson won’t get a pro day due to the COVID-19 pandemic thus unable to record a 40-yard dash time.

“If you like a speedster who can take the top off a defense, Tyler Johnson isn’t a good choice,” Bleacher Report’s Maurice Moton said. “At 6-foot-1, 206 pounds, he’s a bigger wideout with possession pass-catcher traits, but that shouldn’t keep him off the field in the NFL.”

In addition, Johnson’s lapses in concentration have resulted in some shaky hands. PFF charted Johnson with 24 drops on 238 catchable passes during his career including six last fall.

“I’d be lying if I said the drops are a concern,” PFF’s Mike Renner said in their annual draft guide. “They’ve been consistent and prevalent during the course of his career. Also, they haven’t stopped him from being one of the most productive receivers in college football.”

The pros and the cons have made Johnson a polarizing prospect. Not every mock draft goes a full seven rounds, but it’s rare to see Johnson’s name mentioned in part of what’s being considered a historically deep wide receiver class. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller was one detractor who had Johnson sliding into the sixth round of his latest mock draft because of what he perceived as negatives.

But there are still others that believe that Johnson is being undervalued because of his ability to do a little bit of everything. The Draft Network’s Jonah Tuls is an advocate in this regard as he declared Johnson a first-round prospect back in November.

“There may not be a more well-rounded wide receiver in this class, other than maybe Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy, than Tyler Johnson,” Tuls said. “If you look at every trait or skill that is judged at the wide receiver position — size, speed, strength, LOS skills, route running, finishing consistency at the catch point, red-zone production, and after the catch production, Johnson might be the only wide receiver in this elite 2020 wide receiver crop that checks each of those boxes. The more you can do and bring to the table, the more likely you are to have a successful career at the next level.”

A complete receiver like Johnson would go a long way in replacing Diggs, but the biggest appeal should be his ability to win deep despite not possessing top-end speed. With the Gophers deploying an opportunistic offense predicated on establishing the run, Johnson was deployed in the intermediate and deep passing game where he thrived.

Per PFF, no wide receiver in the country had a better passer efficiency rating (153.9) when targeted 20 or more yards downfield than Johnson. Even better, Johnson proved to be a red-zone weapon, with eight touchdowns between 10-19 yards (second in the nation).

It should also be noted that Johnson seemed to play better when going up against tougher competition. Against Nebraska’s Lamar Jackson — regarded as a mid-round pick — Johnson recorded five catches for 109 yards. Then against Auburn’s Noah Igbinoghene, who is creeping into the first-round conversation, Johnson exploded for 12 catches, 204 yards and two touchdowns.

Someone like Johnson should be able to fit into the Vikings offense thanks to his versatility and ability to get open quickly and capitalize deep. If other teams aren’t willing to overlook the negatives, the Vikings should take a chance and potentially add him with another prospect to add much-needed depth to the receiver room.

Most of the time picks like Johnson would be labeled a homer pick. In this case, Johnson has the toolbox to give the Vikings exactly what they need.

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