The New York Jets are hoping Jermaine Johnson can fulfill his potential as a pass rusher
In the run game, Johnson was an NFL-ready difference-maker who already looked like one of the better players in the league at his position. Johnson recorded a run-stop rate of 9.8% that led all rookie edge rushers and was eighth-best out of 129 qualified edge rushers (95th percentile). He was extremely adept at shedding blocks and tracking down the ball carrier for big stops.
However, Johnson looked raw as a pass rusher. Johnson occasionally showed flashes of greatness using his remarkable physical traits, but he was inconsistent when it came to winning his pass rush battles and creating pressure.
Johnson finished his first season with 2.5 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and only 14 total pressures in 14 games (1.0 per game). It’s certainly an underwhelming stat line for a first-round pick.
Johnson’s rate statistics as a pass rusher are not as unsightly, although they are still middling. His pressure rate of 9.3% ranked at the 42nd percentile among 125 qualified edge rushers. Fortunately, he ranks much better if you only look at true pass sets, placing at the 55th percentile with a 14.0% pressure rate in TPS situations. His overall pass rush win rate of 13.8% ranked at the 58th percentile.
While those numbers certainly are not bad, they are average-ish, leaving plenty of room for improvement. Still, posting average-ish pass rush numbers as a rookie is not a negative thing. That is a solid platform to build off of. Johnson was a mid-tier pass rusher, not a terrible one. As a first-round pick who is loaded with talent, a mid-tier floor gives him realistic odds of climbing into the “great” tier if he can take a sizable leap in his second season.
Will Johnson make that leap?
To get an idea of where Johnson stands as a pass rusher, let’s take a look at some of his pass rushing film from 2022.
There were a few specific areas where Johnson showed flashes of intriguing potential on multiple occasions.
Flashes of speed-to-power on bull rushes
Boasting 4.58 speed (92nd percentile for edge rushers), Johnson’s brightest flashes – in terms of pure one-on-one pass rushing – came when he was able to explode off the ball and convert his speed into a powerful bull rush. Here, Johnson drives the RT into the backfield and gets a hit on Geno Smith.
With the Jets blitzing their slot corner (Michael Carter II), Johnson skips inside and takes on the right guard. He generates some excellent movement and is able to get into Jared Goff’s lap despite the ball coming out fairly quickly.
In a wide-nine alignment, Johnson gets the chance to build up plenty of steam heading into his rush, and he takes full advantage as he steamrolls the tackle. Johnson tries to disengage and seemingly gets held, although there is no call. This is against Jawaan Taylor, who was one of the league’s best pass blocking tackles in 2022.
Take note of Johnson’s shoulders in these clips so far. He’s done a good job of getting them low to maximize his power. As we will see in some of the negative clips later on, this is something Johnson did not do consistently enough.
Lining up outside of the tight end, Johnson again gets plenty of room to build up speed heading into his rush. You can really see Johnson’s 4.58 speed on display when he is placed in these situations. He generates a ton of momentum going into the contact point and is a handful for any tackle to contain if he is given that much room.
Flashes of ability to win around the corner
He didn’t do it incredibly often, but Johnson occasionally showed the potential to beat tackles around the corner. Here, Johnson is able to open up room to the outside by stabbing his inside foot toward the right tackle to freeze him. The RT still catches Johnson in the chest, but Johnson also lands his inside arm into the RT’s chest, and he shoves him away to free himself of the contact. From there, Johnson dips his shoulder and flattens his angle to get past the RT. It’s not the smoothest bend in the world, but fortunately, Steelers QB Mitchell Trubisky walks backward in the pocket, moving directly into Johnson’s waiting arms.
This is arguably the cleanest bend around the corner we saw from Johnson in his rookie year, coming on a split-sack with Jacob Martin in the season opener. Johnson’s length is crucial here. Using his long 34-inch arms, Johnson is able to get his hands onto the RT just a split-second before the RT contacts Johnson. This prevents the RT from establishing a firm grip on the block. Johnson pulls his inside arm off the RT and rips it through, bending himself around the corner in the process. He is able to get his hips turned up the field and chases Lamar Jackson down from behind for the sack.
Great counter here by Johnson, which we need to see from him more often. Johnson sees the RT aggressively sliding toward him and anticipates a two-hand punch coming. Johnson is ready for it as he wipes the RT’s hands away to deflect the contact. The RT makes a second attempt to contact Johnson but Johnson successfully deflects him once again. Johnson clears the RT and darts around the corner for a light hit on Geno Smith.
Here’s another flash of a good counter from Johnson. The RT attempts to punch Johnson with his outside hand and Johnson wipes it away with his outside hand. Johnson follows it with a rip move using his inside arm and has the RT beat. Unfortunately, the ball is out quickly, but this is a fast and clean victory by Johnson.
This is a rare flash of finesse from Johnson. First, watch how Johnson subtly fakes an outside move to bait the RT into dropping his outside foot. Once he has the RT biting on the outside, Johnson comes back inside and charges at his chest. But instead of going for the power move, Johnson fakes once again. He shoots his hands at the RT as if he is going for the bull rush, but before he makes any contact, Johnson pulls his arms away and rips through to get around the corner. The RT is completely lost and Johnson has a pristine win for a near-sack. Micheal Clemons just gets to the QB a little quicker.
We did not see Johnson succeed with finesse very often in his rookie year, but this play shows me that he does have some finesse skills within him. He’s got to tap into those skills this offseason.
This sack of Josh Allen is probably the most widely remembered play from Johnson’s rookie year. It demonstrates some of the traits that he brought to the table from day one and can be relied upon to provide throughout his career. The motor, speed, length, and finishing ability that Johnson displays here are rare for an edge defender. How many other NFL edge defenders would have made this play in this situation? Not many.
Johnson couples his speed with well-above-average hustle. Because of these two traits, he will always be someone who thrives at the latter end of long-lasting plays. Even if he doesn’t win his initial rush, you can count on Johnson to chase down the quarterback like a heat-seeking missile and find a way to make an impact on the play.
Areas to improve
Here are a few weaknesses I’ve noticed in Johnson’s pass rush game, which you will notice throughout these clips:
- Poor snap timing: Often late coming out of his stance
- Stands too upright when engaging
- Has no inside moves
- Lacks counters to OT’s punch
- Doesn’t have a plan when transitioning run-to-pass on play action
- Not dominant enough against tight ends
- Affected too much by chips
When combing through Johnson’s failed pass rush reps, the most consistent theme I noticed was his poor snap timing. Johnson was often the last Jets defensive lineman to get out of his stance. His late get-off frequently put him a step behind the blocker in front of him. Notice in this clip how Johnson is just a beat slower to get off the ball than the other three Jets defensive linemen. By the time Johnson makes his first step, the RT is simultaneously putting down his second step.
In a sport where plays last such a short duration of time, every split second can make a massive difference. Johnson must improve his snap timing in year two. He consistently lost reps before they even started because he was so late off the ball.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Johnson ranked 94th out of 110 qualified edge defenders (min. 300 defensive snaps) with an average pass rush get-off time of 0.95 seconds. The league average for edge defenders was 0.88 seconds.
Johnson is a little late off the ball again (although not as bad as the first clip), but the main point I want to highlight here is his upright stance coming into the rush. Look at how vertical Johnson is as he engages with the RT. It’s hard to generate power in that position. Johnson needs to be more consistent at staying low in his power rushes, just as he looked in the bull rush clips we saw at the start of this article.
Johnson must sharpen the efficiency of his rush moves. He goes for the cross-chop here as he looks to bring his inside arm across the body, chop down on the RT’s outside arm, and then club him using the outside arm. However, the move fails as Johnson appears to miss his target as he goes for the chop. This allows the RT to get his hands into Johnson’s body and lock him down.
Johnson does seem to get into this bull rush at a nice depth, but the problem is that his hands are too wide as he goes into the move. This leaves his chest exposed and allows the RT to get his hands into Johnson’s body. Johnson gets his hands onto the RT’s shoulders but the power is minimal since the RT has already established control of Johnson’s chest.
Johnson gets locked up by a tight end here. I understand he wants to contain the edge against Josh Allen and does not want to overpursue, but he is getting clamped on this play nonetheless. Overall, I think Johnson did not win against tight ends as often as he should with his talent.
This looks like another bull rush attempt where Johnson is too upright to generate the desired power.
Johnson actually displays excellent snap timing on this play and it allows him to get into this rush with great momentum and explosiveness. Once again, though, the bull rush is ineffective, largely due to him not getting low enough.
Another trend you may have noticed throughout these clips so far (including the good ones) is that Johnson almost never tries to win inside. He doesn’t have any inside moves in his repertoire – spins, swims, clubs, rips, or anything of the like. In many situations, such as on this play and the previous one, Johnson had a window to potentially win with an inside counter move through an open B gap but didn’t take it. (I know this particular clip is against Josh Allen and Johnson was likely playing with a “contain” mentality, but this was a consistent theme against all quarterbacks).
I feel like Johnson was affected too heavily by chips. This chip from the tight end makes Johnson stumble on one foot, essentially eliminating his chances of winning the rep in an ideal amount of time. On this particular play, I would have liked Johnson to be aware of the tight end as a chip threat and extend his outside arm to fend him off. Johnson also could have held sturdier if he stayed lower and more compact out of his stance.
Here’s another chip that shuts Johnson down. He gets caught on the tight end for too long. Once the tight end disengages, Johnson actually gets a decent speed rush, but he had already wasted too much time to get home before the ball was out.
The Jets need Jermaine Johnson to fulfill his pass rush potential
Just as Rivka Boord wrote about earlier today, Jermaine Johnson’s pass rush progression is going to play a vital role in the Jets’ future. And when we say future, we’re not only talking about the 2023 regular season and beyond, but the 2023 offseason as well.
The Jets have a decision to make with starting edge defender Carl Lawson. They could cut him to clear over $15 million in savings or try to keep him on a restructured deal that reduces his cost.
If the Jets fully believe in Johnson’s ability to take a leap as a pass rusher in 2023, cutting Lawson would be a no-brainer. They can reap the benefits of the savings while replicating Lawson’s production (or improving upon it) with an in-house replacement who is cheap and young.
But if the Jets do not feel fully confident in Johnson taking the leap, the smartest move might be hedging their bets and keeping Lawson around to ensure they can fall back on a solid starter just in case Johnson remains a mediocre pass rusher in his second season.
Overshadowed by Sauce Gardner and Garrett Wilson, Jermaine Johnson has flown under the radar, but the man is a first-round pick whom the Jets traded up to acquire. He is a premium asset in this organization. The Jets expect big things from him.
Johnson’s progression as a pass rusher is one of the most integral variables in the future of this franchise. He has all of the tools to be a star, but it’s very possible that he caps out as a mediocre pass rusher in the NFL. After all, Johnson’s lackluster pass rush win rate was his biggest concern coming out of college, and considering he is already 24 years old, he is no spring chicken in comparison to his second-year peers.
It will be fascinating to see what Johnson looks like as a pass rusher in 2023.
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