PITTSFORD – Linebacker Randell Johnson is not letting his lowly, seventh-round draft status or the fact he came from unheralded Florida Atlantic University limit his dreams about his football future.
“I always expect the best,” Johnson said after Sunday’s training camp practice. “I want to be a starter. I didn’t come here just to be a role guy, just to make the team. I came here to take somebody’s spot.”
First things first: Johnson must make the team. It looks like he’s in good shape in that department. Johnson has been running all camp with the second unit of the Bills’ young linebacking corps. Despite the fact he’s a raw prospect, he has not looked lost in the first two preseason games. He had a team-high six tackles in the opener against the Giants. He had a sack in the win over Carolina Friday.
“It was a good game. I got a lot of learning from it,” Johnson said.
The jury is out on how the Bills will replace starting weak-side linebacker Nigel Bradham for the season opener in Chicago, when Bradham sits for a substance-abuse suspension. Johnson has been playing behind Bradham. But the Bills may well opt for more experience and promote fifth-year veteran Stevenson Sylvester from the second string for the game.
Regardless, Johnson should help the Bills’ special teams this season.
He brings a lot more athleticism than one normally finds in a seventh-round draft pick.
The 6-foot-4, 245-pound Johnson wasn’t invited to the NFL Scouting Combine in February, but he had a superb pro-day workout. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds, aided by a 10 to 15 mph wind. He had a vertical jump of 38½ inches and a broad jump of 10 feet.
The vertical jump would have tied for fifth best among all linebackers at the combine. The broad jump would have tied for ninth best. Even if you downgrade his 40-time to 4.65 due to the wind, it would have tied for fifth best.
Johnson did not have great production his last two years at Florida Atlantic.
As a sophomore, he started every game, ranked second on the team with 92 tackles, had 14.5 tackles for loss and made five sacks. But FAU had a coaching change after his sophomore year and again in the middle of his senior year.
“At FAU when I started my freshman year, I ran the 4-3 and I was the will linebacker,” Johnson said, referring to the weak-side position. “We had coaching switches. My linebacker coach who recruited me liked my size and he switched to the 3-4, which had me rushing. Then we got another new coach for my junior year and we ran a 4-2-5. So I played everything.”
Johnson only started seven of 12 games as a senior and made 41 tackles, but 7.5 of them were for loss.
“I had to humble myself down and be a special teams guy,” he said. “I did a little bit of everything. Whatever they needed me for that game, I played. If they needed me to stand up to rush the passer, I was available. If they needed me in the 4-3, I was the third linebacker.”
Johnson can blitz, as he showed in Carolina, storming through the middle of the Panthers’ line for a 5-yard sack in the third quarter. He has really long arms, 34 inches, which are a good length for an offensive tackle.
“I don’t know what that means, but I know it got mentioned,” Johnson smiled.
Johnson is a raw rookie. He admits he doesn’t think much about techniques or have alternate pass-rush moves at his disposal.
“That’s a learning process,” he said. “I just know how to get to the quarterback. I ain’t got no moves. I’ve got speed. I go after the ball.”
The Bills were off Monday. They practice at 8 a.m. today and then leave for Pittsburgh in the afternoon for two days of joint practices with the Steelers.