For a complete re-build to be successful, like the Colts are starting this year, you have to have a mix of guys that can play right away, and also grab a few guys that show some promise, but may need a few years to be an every-game contributor. One of those guys who looks to have a good deal of talent, but could use a few years to develop, is Nevada LB James-Michael Johnson.
Johnson is a four-year starter, starting in 51 of his career 54 games. He recorded 295 tackles in his career, which is almost six per game, had 46 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks, so he knew his way around the backfield as well. He was a two-time captain for the Wolfpack, and was a vocal leader for the defense that led the WAC last season in Pass Efficiency Defense, and was ranked 22nd nationally.
One of the big upsides to Johnson is that he played OLB for his first three seasons before moving inside to play a 4-3 MIKE, and actually improved his play. Last season he recorded 100 tackles on the season, the highest of his four seasons. What it means is that he's used to playing any LB position, which is key when trying to project whether he'd make the transition to a 3-4. I'm sure he'd play an inside LB, but is used to everything that'll be asked of him, which is a big plus. He's also a guy who played extensively on Special Teams, so he'd be able to make an impact there immediately.
The reason he'll take a few years to develop is that he's still a bit raw in pass coverage, giving up space initially before doing a decent job closing. Obviously with passing becoming the name of the game, it's something every linebacker needs to be able to do. In the mean time he's an above average run defender, which puts him in the same mold as Kavell Conner, who is very similar. Maybe the new coaching staff could teach both of them at the same time.
After the jump we have what some draft sites have to say about Johnson, as well as all his measurements from the Combine, audio from his media session, and my thoughts on him.
A shorter, compact inside linebacker prospect with a thickly put together frame. Generates a natural snap into contact, when taking on blocks inside. Creates natural leverage for himself, is an explosive kid who can deliver a thump at the point of attack and to his credit does a nice job extending his arms and keeping himself clean...Is a good athlete who can run, close on the football and play with power in the run game. Needs to play a bit lower in coverage, but overall does everything at a pretty solid NFL level.
A two-time team captain and productive, four-year starter with experience playing inside and outside. Has the versatility to appeal to teams seeking interchangeable linebackers. Has eventual starter potential; could find his way as a special-teams kamikaze.
Johnson has played both outside and inside during his four years at Nevada, finishing up at the Mike position in his final two years. He has been a productive tackler and is an obvious leader and inspiration on the defense. He is athletic and thick, and he brings power to the line of scrimmage when tackling.
Combine Media Session (3:49)
Johnson is a versatile guy, which is a big plus when talking about a 4th or 5th round pick, as he could potentially play inside or outside linebacker, as well as being an instant contributor on special teams. I always like guys who were leaders on their defense in college, and you have to love the four year players. He'd be a great guy for a rebuild, as he'll be able to grow and come into his own right when the team gets really good. I'm an advocate for Johnson on the Colts, even though I loathe the double first name.
For a complete list of prospects and profiles, check out our 2012 Draft Profiles Page.