Bill Belichick describes FB Jakob Johnson’s ‘remarkable’ rise to Patriots roster

Andy Hart
September 23, 2019 - 11:41 am

Bill Belichick and the Patriots made an interesting choice when they looked to fill the open roster spot vacated by Antonio Brown’s release, moving on from the elite talent who’s been nothing but a circus sideshow and distraction for his last three teams, most recently the Patriots.

Listen to your team news NOW.

While Brown is a guy who’s gotten chance after chance thanks to his Hall of Fame skills despite his non-stop off-field issues, New England filled the 53rd spot on the roster with a guy who wasn’t even among the Patriots top 90 players when training camp opened in July.

Arriving in New England via the NFL’s International Pathway Program last April, fullback Jakob Johnson joined the Patriots active roster against the Jets on Sunday and made his professional debut with eight snaps against New York, six coming on special teams.

Belichick chose his words carefully while describing what he termed as Johnson’s “remarkable” rise to the Patriots game day roster.

Johnson is a native of Stuttgart, Germany who played one season of high school football in Florida before a four-year career at Tennessee which began as a linebacker and transitioned to tight end for his final three seasons. But four years of SEC action and just three career catches for the Vols didn’t exactly make Johnson an NFL prospect. In fact, he spent 2018 playing for the Stuttgart Scorpions of the German Football League before the NFL’s Pathway program and a personal recommendation from his college coach earned him an unexpected opportunity in New England.

“First of all, no he was not on our radar,” Belichick admitted of Johnson during his Monday morning conference call with the local media. “I don’t think we would have ever signed him. And when the players were kind of listed, there were a group of players that fell into this category and we looked at that group. It was kind of like, ‘is there anybody here you want?’ So based on some research and follow-up at Tennessee…really Butch Jones [former Volunteers head coach] recommended him to me and we didn’t really know much about the other guys. I can’t say we were excited to have him. But based on what Butch said felt like he was a good player to work with, would work hard, would really try to get better, was a good teammate and all those things that he had showed at Tennessee.”

With the Pathway program earning Johnson a roster waiver, he was about as close to being described as a true camp body as a guy can get.

“I would say he definitely started out as the 91st player on the roster and had a long, long, long way to go back in the spring,” Belichick emphasized. “I don’t think anybody ever envisioned him being on the roster at that point or even being on the practice squad, to tell you the truth. But he continued to get better. And certainly his physicality and toughness showed up in preseason games and in the preseason practices against Detroit and Tennessee. So he steadily worked his way into, let’s call it a backup fullback role and was activated for the game yesterday.”

This isn’t the first time Belichick has worked with longshots in camp. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Certainly the gold standard would be former NCAA champion and Olympic wrestler Stephen Neal, who went from not playing college football – and as Belichick likes to note not even knowing how to put on his shoulder pads when he first arrived in Foxborough --  to a mainstay at guard on the Patriots offensive line.

So while Johnson’s story remains in its infancy – despite the absence of Pro Bowl fullback James Develin to a neck injury and struggles running against the Jets, the newcomer didn’t get much of a look on offense – Belichick has clearly been impressed with his rapid development.

“I wouldn’t say it would be quite a Steve Neal rise, but somewhere in that neighborhood,” Belichick acknowledged. “What he’s done has been remarkable and in a relatively short period of time. But he works extremely hard. He’s one of the first players here every morning. He studies his notecards. You see him in the dining room just studying notecards, going over his plays. He puts literally every ounce of energy he has into this job and into our team. He’s totally earned everybody’s respect for that. He’s a young player. He has a long way to go. There is a lot of room for improvement, but he works very hard at it.”

And unlike Brown, Johnson has a roster spot in New England and a job in the NFL.

Related: Patriots’ dominant defense knows Bill Belichick will see room for improvement