EAGAN, Minn. — There are still times when third-year defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson finds himself out of position while trying to make a big play in the trenches.
As a rotational player on the Vikings’ talented defensive line, buried behind Pro Bowl defensive tackle Linval Johnson on the depth chart, Johnson knows those big plays are his ticket to more playing time.
It’s just not his sole focus anymore.
“I remember when I first got here I was always like, ‘OK. I’ve got to make a big play to impress the coaching staff,’” Johnson said. “I wanted to be disruptive on every single snap and that wasn’t always the right way of looking at it. They obviously look for guys that are going to make big plays. They just don’t want guys that are out of control trying to do it.”
That’s something Johnson has learned since being drafted by the Vikings in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft. And as his mindset has matured, his playing time has increased.
It’s no longer about getting the sack, or the tackle for a loss, on a given play. As long as he’s in the right spot, that’s the only thing that matters.
“They just want us to be fundamentally sound,” Johnson said. “I can make a play in a one-on-one situation, and if I’m not in the right gap, it’s about to be a big gain of the other team. I’d much rather be in the right gap and have someone on the backside make the play. That comes with maturity and knowing my role on the team.”
If his play during minicamp is any indication — Johnson took most of the first-team reps at nose tackle with Joseph recovering from an undisclosed surgery — his role could be enhanced moving forward. After appearing in just 41 snaps during his rookie season, he saw his workload increase to 260 snaps the next year, and seems to be in line for even more work this season.
“He’s being more receptive to coaching,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “Sometimes he still is a little bit like a bull in a china shop. He just wants to go, go, go. We had to get him to understand where his gap is, and how he’s playing it, and where his hand should be, and things like that. He’s done a much better job so far.”
Aside from refining his technique, Johnson also added about 10 pounds of muscle over the past few months, something that should help him make a bigger impact down the road.
“I reported back at about 310 pounds,” Johnson said. “Just hit the weight room a lot harder and ate a lot of good food. I knew when I came back I wanted to have the right weight on so I could compete at a high level.”
Emphasis on “the right weight” as he works to get to the next level.
Instead of eating as much as possible to bulk up like he did in his younger years, Johnson now makes a concerted effort to plan out his meals on a daily basis. He consults with a nutritionist regularly about the right things to put in his body and has developed a couple of go-to dishes that he’s confident could stack up against anything his teammates are cooking.
“I can throw down in the kitchen a little bit,” Johnson said with a smile. “I make a good rack of lamb with some broccoli on the side.”
As much as Johnson has dedicated himself to improving early in his career, he knows he still has a lot to live up to when looking at the man he’s trying to pass on the depth chart.
“Just being able to watch Linval master his craft has been unbelievable,” Johnson said. “He’s already one of the best players in the league at what he does and he keeps finding ways to get better. That’s motivation right there. Those things he does are what I need to do to take the next step as a player. It’s like, ‘OK. How do I do what Linval does?’”
As for the big plays, Johnson still finds himself hunting them from time to time.
“Everybody wants to go out there and make a big play to impress the coaching staff,” Johnson said. “Sometimes I’ll revert back to that. That said, I feel like I’ve come a long way as far as being more dialed in on what I need to do. It’s started to slow down for me. I feel like I’m in a good spot right now.”