Some say that fullbacks are a dying breed. The once proud position has been whittled down over the course of the last two decades and in 2020, only 20 teams have employed a designated fullback with just 13 players seeing meaningful snaps on offense.
You might say Jakob Johnson slid through a closing door.
With the odds stacked against him already as a European player, the Stuttgart native has carved out an NFL role in the most unlikely of positions. In his second season with the New England Patriots, Johnson has become an integral part of the offence and only two teams, the San Francisco 49ers and Minnesota Vikings, have employed their fullbacks more. You’d be forgiven for thinking that it was a position that Johnson had been in his whole life, but this is just another chapter in the German’s winding football story.
As a youngster with the Stuttgart Scorpions, Johnson was a star on the defensive side of the ball and it was his prowess at linebacker that originally took him stateside, first to high school in Florida and then to the University of Tennessee as a three star recruit. Johnson would go on to play 47 games for the Volunteers but it wasn’t long before he experienced his first position switch, moving from linebacker to tight end as a sophomore. Though he contributed heavily on special teams, Johnson’s first foray into offence didn’t produce the results everyone hoped for. He would catch just three pass for 23 yards in college and many in the state of Tennessee labeled him a recruiting bust as he left Knoxville.
It wasn’t until Johnson’s return to Stuttgart that his offensive acumen shone through. In his lone GFL season, the 6’3 255-pounder racked up 474 yards and 4 touchdowns for the Scorpions. That attracted the attention of the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program and a year after going undrafted, Johnson found himself assigned to the New England Patriots. It was hardly a match made in heaven, as future Hall of Fame coach Bill Belichick openly admits he had little interest in the developmental German.
“He was not on our radar. I don’t think we would have ever signed him,” he said earlier this year when asked about the allocation process. “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?’.”
Only Belichick’s conversations with former Tennessee coach Butch Jones managed to skew the decision in Johnson’s favor and the rest is history.
“He came a long way last year, probably amongst the furthest that I’ve ever coached — probably in the top five anyway,” says Belichick, rarely one to heap praise. “This year, he was light years ahead of where he was last year in the spring, and that gave him a lot of confidence and gave us a lot of confidence in terms of what he could do, what his skills were and the adjustments he was able to make and so forth.”
It took just a little bit of luck for Johnson to get that opportunity. The Patriots had almost no expectation of ever dressing him in 2019 and shifted him from tight end to fullback to best fit their scheme, but an injury to starter James Develin led Johnson to become just the second Pathway player ever elevated to the active roster, following Carolina’s Efe Obada. He lasted just four games before a shoulder injury sent him to the injured reserve as well, but his performance in relief earned him an invite back to the Patriots in 2020. Develin retired in the offseason and free agent replacement Danny Vitale opted out due to coronavirus concerns, leaving Johnson to seize the reigns at pro football’s most under-appreciated position.
The German has found a niche and is now laying the framework for a promising NFL career, catching seven pass for 34 yards this season and hauling in a touchdown in Week 2. That score was the first ever by a German player on offence in NFL history, equaling the defensive mark set by former New York Giant Markus Kuhn. More importantly, Johnson has done the often unheralded work of opening holes in the run game and has become the lynchpin for the Patriots success in that area. On his third position, it seems that Johnson has finally found a permanent fit and could be a part of the Patriots long term plans as they keep the fullback position alive in the NFL.
“He continues to improve and get better and refine his techniques and his skillset,” Belichick acknowledged in his typical gruff way. “He’s a young player that works very hard and has continued to improve.”
It took joining a dying breed for Jakob Johnson to establish himself as the figurehead for a new breed of German football players heading to the NFL, but now he seems here to stay.