PITTSBURGH— The beard is a little fuller. The dreadlocks are a little shorter. The uniform has changed, from blue and white to pewter and red. But the chip on Anthony Johnson’s shoulder persists.
He still speaks softly, but Johnson concedes he holds a grudge – one that formed over the course of three days in late April, when he was passed over in the NFL Draft. The rejection stung.
Johnson, a wide receiver, was once projected as a first-round draft pick during a remarkable two years at the University at Buffalo. But he remained undaunted as the draft continued. He still held hope the phone would ring.
It did, but it was hours after the draft ended on April 25. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were on the line, one of three teams that wanted to sign Johnson as an undrafted free agent. It wasn’t as lucrative or as prestigious as going to an NFL camp as a draft pick, but Johnson finally had a chance at making the NFL.
Now, Johnson needs to maximize that chance. He made his professional debut Friday with three catches on for 33 yards when the Buccaneers opened the preseason against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.
"I felt great," Johnson said, after a 30-28 preseason loss to the Steelers. "I was nervous, at first. You want to go out there and be perfect, with everybody watching. But I got out there and tried to catch everything that came my way. Once I caught a few passes, it got me going."
As a rookie, he’s learning Tampa Bay’s playbook and making the transition to professional football. Johnson is also part of a deep group of wide receivers trying to make the Buccaneers' 53-man roster.
Johnson was one of 13 wide receivers dressed for the preseason opener, including starters Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians had said the Bucs' younger players and those who are lower on the depth chart would get the bulk of the playing time against the Steelers.
The 6-foot-2 receiver entered the game on the second-to-last play of the first half, when Ryan Griffin’s pass to Godwin fell short on third-and-1 from the Steelers' 37-yard line.
Johnson was targeted five times in the game. His first catch came with about seven minutes left in the third quarter, a 17-yard grab from Griffin on first-and-10 at the Tampa Bay 41.
Anthony Johnson made his pro debut on Friday, in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' preseason opener, a 30-28 loss at Pittsburgh -- Johnson finished with three catches for 33 yards. @UBFootball @litmanjohnson @Buccaneers https://t.co/p7YeIf19rq
— Rachel Lenzi (@rachelmlenzi) August 10, 2019
Johnson's second catch, a 10-yard pass from Griffin with about six minutes into the fourth quarter, came one play after he was unable to grab a pass on first-and-10 while in coverage.
Three plays later, on third-and-1 at the Bucs' 43, Johnson caught a 6-yard pass that helped extend a 13-play, 76-yard scoring drive that ended with Tanner Hudson's 4-yard touchdown pass with 4:47 left in the fourth.
It was a productive night for a rookie, one of 15 Bucs to catch passes in the exhibition game. After the game, Johnson shuffled through the Heinz Field visitors locker room with ease, smiling and quietly engaging with his teammates.
A preseason loss didn't bother Johnson, and his demeanor hasn't changed in the few months since he left UB. His mindset, however, has. Preparation has been vital in his pursuit of an NFL roster spot.
“It’s a lot more mental," Johnson said. "In college, you didn’t think as much about what you did on the field. Here, you have to adjust to things that happen on the field, and you have to watch for more things. The first day of training camp, I saw it, guys switching up on defense, and coaches telling us what to look for.
“And I’m studying a lot more. A lot more than I did in college. You have to get into the playbook, because you can be in any position at any time of day. You have to be prepared.”
From Rock Hill to the NFL
Johnson is the latest in a line of players from his hometown to begin a pro football career. Rock Hill, S.C., is a town of about 70,000 people located 30 miles south of Charlotte, N.C. Rock Hill has become a foundry for college football and NFL players.
Perry Sutton, Johnson’s youth football coach, estimates Rock Hill has produced at least 30 current or former NFL players. Johnson aims to join a group that includes Houston Texans pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney, who is Johnson's cousin; Chicago Bears wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson; and former NFL safety Chris Hope.
As a middle-school student, Johnson aspired to be the first NBA player from Rock Hill. But when Johnson was seven years old and beat a group of 13-year-old football players in a foot race, Sutton encouraged his interest in football.
“I told him, ‘You need to be about 7-feet tall to be in the NBA,’ ” Sutton said. “But when he knew he was going to go to college, he made the decision that football was the way to go.’
“But Anthony wants to be the best, and that chip on his shoulder comes from his motivation to be the best. He’s part of a group that doesn’t just want to say, ‘I made it out of Rock Hill.’ He is motivated to be in the NFL, to be the top wide receiver, to go to the Pro Bowl, to win Super Bowl and to be in the Hall of Fame. The expectations are high.”
Johnson is part of a group of players who gather each summer in Rock Hill to train and to spend time with each other, whether it’s at summer youth football camps or at group dinners.
Johnson, Sutton said, always eats chicken. And he doesn’t say much. He’s intent on listening to the laughter, the ribbing and the wisdom shared in those communal meals. That is Johnson’s nature, to be still, to observe and to absorb everything around him. But underneath a quiet surface is the resolve of a fiercely driven individual.
“Him being so humble, it makes it seem as if he’s kind of nonchalant, and he’s really not,” said Strait Herron, Johnson’s coach at South Pointe High School in Rock Hill. “It’s amazing that every summer, he will come back to our weight room and work out, and he just lifts, as hard as I’ve seen him lift. That self-motivation, where he gets it from, I don’t know.
“But his demeanor does not show what his true intentions are.”
Reaching the pros
Johnson is the first male in his family to graduate from college. To do that, he had to forgo the riches of the NFL after the 2017 season at UB, even though he was projected as a top draft pick after ranking second in the nation in yards per game with 76 catches for 1,356 yards. He was third in the nation in TD catches with 14.
“His motivation was, ‘I want my degree,’ ” Sutton said. “We preach that around here. Football is not everything. One injury, and he’s done. Having his degree, that shows the young people here in Rock Hill that not only did someone make it to the NFL, but they did it with a college degree, and have that to fall back on.”
Still, in two seasons, Johnson became one of UB’s most prolific receivers, finishing with 2,367 yards and 25 touchdowns on 133 catches.
Johnson aggravated a lingering ankle injury during Senior Bowl practices in January in Mobile, Ala. That limited his NFL combine workout in Indianapolis and he did not run the 40-yard dash for scouts until UB's Pro Day in mid-March.
He ran 4.5 seconds, presumably minimizing questions about his speed, but his back tightened up after his first 40 and he was not able to run routes or catch passes in front of the representatives from 30 NFL teams.
That would be his final chance to make an impression on a prospective team because Johnson was not invited for any pre-draft workouts.
By the time the draft arrived, he was projected by some to be a third- or fourth-round pick. Instead, he went undrafted and didn't know why.
“That was hard for him,” UB wide receivers coach Rob Ianello said. “We talked before the draft, we talked after the second day of the draft and it was hard because the reasons he went undrafted were not known to him at that time. When he pulled up at our pro day lame and only ran a 40-yard dash, and didn’t work out for a team after that, that was something that got him flagged from a ‘draftable’ status, and that was unknown to him."
When Johnson signed with Tampa Bay, Ianello saw Johnson's mindset change.
“It was, ‘I’m going to the Bucs, I’ve got a great opportunity and I’ve got to take advantage of my opportunity,’ " Ianello said. "He didn’t feel sorry for himself. He didn’t pout. He approached it just like you would want a guy to approach it, and I was proud of him for that, because it was a hard thing.”
Johnson signed with the Buccaneers because he saw them as the best fit, and the best chance for him to make an NFL roster.
Johnson signed a three-year contract valued at $1.755 million with a base salary of $495,000 for this season if he makes the team, according to Spotrac.
But, as Ianello said, “You don’t know what a pro camp is going to be like. You’re unsure of it. He is guaranteed nothing. He has to go out and earn it every day.”
With his first game completed, Johnson hopes he earned some currency for his future.
“Seeing how fast the game really is and getting my feet wet out there, and being a rookie, in the first game, with all these people watching, I haven’t really had that in college,” Johnson said Friday. “It helped ease me in.
“Now, I have to be patient. You have to be in the playbook a lot, and take your time with everything. Don’t rush it. You have to know what you’re doing when you go out there, and guys are going to have mistakes, but we’re rookies. As long as you make a mistake full speed, it’s not going to matter.”