When the NFL Draft concluded on April 27, two Texas Longhorns had been selected — both of them day-three picks. Defensive end Charles Omenihu went to the Houston Texans in the fifth round, and cornerback Kris Boyd was taken in the seventh by the Minnesota Vikings. 13 other draft-eligible Longhorns were still waiting for their chance to be signed as NFL undrafted free agents.
And the first one to be signed was linebacker Gary Johnson, whose agent Nicole Lynn announced his signing by the Kansas City Chiefs at 5:33 p.m. Arrowhead Time.
Andrew Miller of Fansided’s Longhorns site trumpeted that Johnson’s signing was “one of the biggest steals that any team will get in undrafted free agency.”
That might have displayed more than just a tinge of partisan hyperbole, but it is true that draft analysts thought Johnson would be selected on day three. Our own KC Draft Guide rated Johnson as a sixth-round pick, and NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein figured he would be selected in the seventh round or become a priority free agent.
Certainly, our SB Nation sister site Burnt Orange Nation saw Johnson as a legitimate draft prospect in their draft profile, noting Johnson’s team-leading 90 tackles (61 solo), 16.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in his senior season.
At the NFL Combine, Johnson maybe did himself more favors than his film has, as he clocked a 4.43 40-yard dash time, which marked the second-best effort among all linebackers in this class, trailing only LSU’s Devin White (4.42), and now stands as the fourth-fastest time ever recorded by a linebacker prospect.
That eye-opening time opened attracted the attention of several NFL teams, as USA Today’s Jori Epstein reported.
After his 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, NFL teams reached out. Johnson visited Pittsburgh and Oakland. Representatives from each organization complimented his versatility, how he would match up against athletic tight ends and big-bodied receivers. Think a bigger hybrid dime with utility in subpackages and on special teams.
“There’s potential there,” said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay, who projects Johnson as a middle-of-Day-3 selection. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he continues to get better over time because he has that ability and just the raw talent.”
Burnt Orange Nation quoted Johnson as saying that would be all right with him.
“If that’s where they see my playing then that’s what I’ll do,” Johnson said of the potential role NFL scouts envision for him. “I’ll play whatever they want me to become; special teams, defensive back or linebacker.
“I feel like a lot of people didn’t know who I was. A lot of people slept on me and said I was too little; I was too short, I wasn’t heavy enough,” Johnson added when asked if his combine and pro day performances raised eyebrows regarding his draft stock. “My film did show that I was better than a lot of people said, but I felt like once I got to the combine, I opened a few eyes that I’m as good as anyone else out there.”
Johnson’s highlights during his two seasons at Texas reveal a speedy player with the ability to shoot gaps, hit hard and make big plays in the backfield.
If any of those plays remind you of someone — perhaps another former Texas Longhorn named Johnson — it’s not a coincidence.
“My favorite player came here. And he actually went to Texas. That’s Derrick Johnson,” Johnson told old friend BJ Kissel in a video published on the Chiefs official web site on Thursday. “So you know, once I first got the call that the Chiefs were even interested in me, it was like somewhere I could see myself playing. I watched Derrick Johnson play here.”
According to Gary, the two Johnsons have been in regular contact for some time.
“I try to text him like every day,” he said. “He’ll get back to me. I just check on him and he checks on me. He’s like, ‘Are you good? Are you being yourself? Are you staying in shape? Are you staying in your playbook?’ Things like that. It makes me feel good that he’s worried about me — in a good way and not a bad way. Just trying to look out for me the best way he can. That guy has everything else in the world to be doing rather than texting a former linebacker from his alma mater. So I take that, run with it and try to learn from him.”
The just-retired former Chiefs linebacker says he is proud that another former Longhorn is following in his footsteps.
“I’m a University of Texas guy through-and-through; I bleed burnt orange,” Derrick Johnson told Kissel. “So to see that Gary Johnson got picked up with the Chiefs was amazing — because before that we would text all the time back and forth. Being a mentor to a younger guy — a speedy linebacker like himself — I just want to encourage him to just keep being better on and off the field. And to see him come to the Chiefs after I’m retiring, that was pretty awesome to see. He’s really excited about his opportunities here, and I’m definitely going to help him out along the way.”
It will be helpful for the likely Chiefs Hall of Fame player to be in the young linebacker’s corner, because while he exhibits traits that will be useful in the 4-3 Under scheme that new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will employ, he is not without some flaws — as our KC Draft Guide noted.
Johnson has the requisite range and speed to play as a Will linebacker in the Chiefs defense. His aggressiveness and processing are both above average and could lead to early rotational snaps. However, lack of length and rigid hips probably mean that his overall ceiling isn’t as high as some others in this class. Johnson would be a stud special-teamer with his speed but likely would never hold down the fort as Spagnuolo’s first choice Will linebacker.
But it probably wouldn’t be wise to count him out. To come this far, Johnson has already seen more than his share of struggle.
Epstein’s fascinating USA Today profile — well worth a read — tells how he was born to a 14-year-old mother who fought drug addiction and ultimately lost him to the foster care system in Alabama. The group home in which he lived during middle school didn’t allow football, and after playing in eighth and ninth grade, he became academically ineligible for his sophomore season. After moving to another town in his junior year, he was benched.
But in his senior season, things changed.
He triple-lettered as a senior in football, basketball and track, winning a state title with his 10.59-second 100-meter dash. Johnson also earned his family’s first high school degree in four generations. The diploma rides safely in his car armrest, he explains, only because “I got to get a bigger wallet.”
Then Johnson exploded at Dodge City (Kan.) Community College, where he collected a league-best 133 tackles along with 8 1/2 sacks, four interceptions, three fumble recoveries, and three scores off turnovers in 2016.
After committing to play at Alabama, Johnson had to withdraw because a loan he had taken out to take a math course didn’t meet SEC rules. He came to Texas in 2017.
It was then, Texas linebacker Anthony Wheeler explains, that teammates needed to take Johnson under their wing. Johnson didn’t immediately start games. He clashed with defensive coordinator Todd Orlando. Struggling to adjust to more-demanding academics and scheduling requirements, Johnson “stayed in trouble,” Wheeler told USA Today Sports. “When he first got here, he was always on punishment.”
The entire linebackers corps shouldered consequences. Extra running, bear crawls and waking around 5 or 6 a.m. to clean. They called it “dawn patrol.”
Eventually, Johnson embraced Orlando’s rules and schematic imperatives. Johnson went to class. He boosted his GPA from 1.5 to 2.6.
“He grew a lot and became a man,” Wheeler said. “He learned, ‘I got to do better for my brothers and for myself.’”
Johnson’s words to Kissel on Thursday reflected his personal growth in Texas.
“I love to do whatever for my brothers and my program to win,” he said. “It wasn’t just because of my athleticism; it was more my defensive line. They got me free to go make those tackles-for-loss and all that type of stuff. It was much more credit to them.”
And Johnson has now met another coach who will set high standards for him.
“He’s a tough guy on me,” he said of new Chiefs linebackers coach Matt House. “He’s not a lover guy. So he’s not going to love on you — and I like that. If a coach doesn’t say something to you, you should be worried. When a guy is always on you, you should appreciate that and soak it in, and know that he is trying to make you better.”