Where does A.J. Johnson rank among the nation's top linebackers?
A.J. Johnson is off to a strong start in 2014. Johnson currently leads the SEC with 29 tackles entering a Week 4 bye, a career-high through his first three games.
The senior linebacker is coming off back-to-back 100-plus tackle seasons, including a career-best 138 in 2012. That same season, Johnson had 27 through his first three games.
Johnson decided to return for his senior season after a decorated individual career that saw little team success. Despite his contributions, Johnson has never experienced a winning season or a bowl game appearance.
At his current rate, the senior linebacker will likely improve his stock for the 2015 NFL Draft. Here’s how Johnson ranks among middle linebackers, according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper:
1. *Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi St.
2. Ramik Wilson, Georgia
3. Denzel Perryman, Miami (Fla.)
4. Hayes Pullard, USC
5. Stephone Anthony, Clemson
6. A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
7. *Terrance Smith, Florida St.
8. Jake Ryan, Michigan
9. Trey DePriest, Alabama
10. Bryce Hager, Baylor
Entering Week 4, Johnson had more tackles than all of the players listed above. He is listed as Tennessee’s top NFL Draft-eligibile prospect, according to NFL Draft Scout. According to the website, Johnson has just enough speed to meet backs at the edge and is fluid enough to handle coverage responsibilities. His greatest skill, however, is his heavy-hitting as a tackler, which he pairs with a closing burst to gather momentum.
Johnson has also benefited from an increased amount of talent on the defensive side. The presence of sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin at starting outside linebacker has benefited both players. Reeves-Maybin has 25 tackles of his own, while Johnson has less of a load to carry.
In the case of the other linebackers listed on Kiper’s board, many have a surplus of talent surrounding them on defense. Johnson has lacked help through his first three seasons and is finally seeing some as a senior. At his current rate, Johnson will not only have a career season, but also prove to be one of the best linebackers in the nation.