Over the years, the Patriots under Bill Belichick have been adept at finding and developing talented players from untraditional football backgrounds.
The latest is fullback Jakob Johnson, who was born in Stuttgart, Germany. The 24-year-old became the first player from the NFL’s International Pathway Program to make a 53-man roster.
Johnson, who was cut by the Patriots before the regular season but retained on the practice squad, was activated for his NFL debut after starter James Develin was ruled out against the Jets on Sunday with a neck injury.
In the 30-14 win over the Jets, Johnson played two snaps on offense and six on special teams.
On Monday, ESPN reporter Mike Reiss asked Bill Belichick during a media conference call if Johnson was on the Patriots’ radar following the 2019 draft (to be signed as an undrafted free agent).
“He was not on our radar,” Belichick replied. “I don’t think we ever would have ever signed him. When the [international] players were 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?’
Johnson played for four seasons at the University of Tennessee, and Belichick referenced former Volunteers coach Butch Jones as source of information.
“Based on some research and follow-up at Tennessee, Butch [Jones] recommended him to me. We didn’t really know much about the other guys, and I can’t say that we were excited to have him. But based on what Butch said, it 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.”
Though he isn’t always willing to share his analysis of particular players, Belichick admitted that Johnson was a long-shot to make the team only a few months ago.
“I would say he definitely started off as the 91st player on the roster and had a long, long, long way to go back in the spring,” the Patriots coach explained. “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 his toughness showed up in the preseason games and the preseason practices.”
Johnson flashed his potential in training camp, leveling a Titans defensive end during one especially eye-catching preseason moment.
Belichick referenced wrestler-turned-lineman Steven Neal as a comparison (Neal, a former Division I national champion wrestler, played for a decade with the Patriots from 2001-2010), but noted that Johnson has a ways to go.
“I wouldn’t say it was quite a Steve Neal rise but somewhere in that neighborhood,” Belichick noted. “What he’s done has been remarkable in a relatively short period of time. He works extremely hard. He’s one of the first players here every morning. He puts literally every ounce of energy he has into this job and into our team and he’s totally earned everybody’s respect for that.”