Mile High Sports

Former top prospect A.J. Johnson starts over after three years away from football

Nov 15, 2014; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers linebacker A.J. Johnson (45) reacts during the second half against the Kentucky Wildcats at Neyland Stadium. Tennessee won 50 to 16. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The Broncos recently signed linebacker A.J. Johnson, who formerly was a star at the University of Tennessee and was on his way to an NFL career before getting caught up in a three-year legal battle. Johnson, 26, has not played football in three seasons due to an extensive legal process that stemmed from a 2015 rape accusation.

In February of 2015, Johnson was indicted on rape charges, along with his former Tennessee teammate Michael Williams. After a three-year legal battle, Johnson was recently acquitted of all charges and once again has an opportunity to pursue an NFL career though.

Johnson was a four-year starter for the Volunteers and likely would have been a late first-round or early second-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft if he would not have had a serious legal situation to deal with. The former Vol met with several NFL teams during the vetting process, but ultimately decided Denver was the best fit for him.

“We’ve had several conversations with him since he’s been cleared and have become very familiar with his background and character. Our organization is confident A.J. is ready to move forward and resume his playing career,” Broncos general manager John Elway said of Johnson when asked about the decision to sign the former Tennessee linebacker.

So, how exactly does Johnson fit into the Broncos’ defensive plans this season? It is pretty simple-the Broncos desperately need linebackers-especially guys that can play inside of the team’s outside pass rushers. Johnson can do exactly that.

Johnson is one of only four players in Tennessee football history to record 400 career tackles. 30.5 of those tackles were for a loss, so his ability to read a play and then pursue the runner was stellar with the Volunteers.

The biggest question of course will obviously be whether missing three years of football will be too large of a hurdle to come back from. Considering Johnson was never necessarily going to be the most athletic linebacker on the squad and has always has relied on instinct and high football IQ, he should be fine though.

“His production will jump off the page, but Johnson isn’t the high-impact player his tackle numbers might suggest. With average lateral movement and limited twitch, Johnson can be an NFL starter, but is unlikely to be a standout at any point,” NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein wrote.

This caps Johnson’s potential ceiling but raises his floor. Fans have to remember that until last Saturday’s bout with the Bears, Johnson had not played a snap of football in 3.5 years. It is a good thing that his talent appeared to have more to do with football IQ and instincts, rather than raw athletic ability though. Johnson is surely rusty after not being around football for that long, but his instinct for the game should return as he gets comfortable within the defense.

Despite not signing with the organization until August, the Broncos appear committed to keeping him around for the 53-man roster in 2018. The team gave him more guaranteed money than any of the other undrafted free agents that were signed this offseason and appear committed to molding Johnson into the linebacker he was projected to be in 2015.