German-born rookie Jakob Johnson gets chance on Pats roster
Johnson, 24, a native of Stuttgart, Germany, had played in an under-19 football league in Germany, and later, a year of high school ball in Jacksonville, Florida, where he was staying with relatives. Then he played four years at the University of Tennessee, first as a linebacker and then a tight end.
But he was not drafted, and as Patriots coach Bill Belichick said earlier this week, “he was not on our radar. I don’t think we would have ever signed him.”
However, there was another opportunity available to Johnson that he vowed to utilize to his fullest. The Patriots signed him as part of the NFL’s International Pathway Program, and the rookie fullback has earned the respect of his coaches and teammates on his way to the 53-man roster.
“When I got the opportunity to join the International Pathway Program, I told myself that I was going to take full advantage of it,” Johnson said Wednesday. “Within that, for me, my mentality was to just take it one day at a time, focus on what I had to do that day, and just keep try to keep doing that.”
Johnson was promoted from the practice squad to the gameday roster last week after starting fullback James Develin suffered a neck injury in the previous week’s game at Miami. Develin was inactive for the Patriots’ 30-14 victory over the New York Jets and Johnson made his NFL debut primarily on special teams.
Develin, a seventh-year veteran out of Brown and a Pro Bowl selection in 2017, has since been placed on the injured reserve list. That could put Johnson in line for more playing time, both on special teams and on offense.
But it might not have happened without the International Pathway Program, established in 2017 to offer foreign-born players a greater opportunity to make NFL rosters. In the Patriots’ case, they were able to keep Johnson throughout training camp without him counting against the 90-player limit.
“I would say he definitely started out as the 91st person on the roster and had a long, long, long way to go,” Belichick said.
“Back in the spring, 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 in the preseason practices against Detroit and Tennessee.”
Armed with a favorable recommendation from former Tennessee Vols football coach Butch Jones, Belichick watched with great interest as Johnson brought a relentless work ethic to the field.
Belichick compares Johnson’s progress to that of Stephen Neal, a former collegiate wrestler from Cal State-Bakersfield who joined the Patriots in 2001 with practically no football experience, and became a trusted member of the offensive line for 10 seasons.
“I wouldn’t say it was quite a Steve Neal rise, but somewhere in that neighborhood,” Belichick said. “What he’s done has been remarkable, and in a relatively short period of time, but he works extremely hard.”
“When you get a compliment like that, that just means that that’s your standard now,” Johnson said. “You have to bring that every day and actually work harder now.”
The Patriots aren’t strangers to German players. Sebastian Vollmer, originally from Düsseldorf, played right tackle for them from 2009-16 after being drafted in the second round out of the University of Houston. The NFL’s growing popularity in Germany will make it easier for Johnson’s family to follow his progress.
“They’ve started showing the games now on free TV, where when I first started with football, the only game you could watch was the Super Bowl. Now you can watch pretty much every regular-season game,” Johnson said.
It’s unclear what awaits Johnson as the 3-0 Patriots prepare to visit the 3-0 Buffalo Bills on Sunday. But he is making the most of the opportunity he received.
“He puts literally every ounce of energy he has into this job and our team, and he’s totally earned everybody’s respect,” Belichick said.