It was exactly a month ago that Derrick Johnson joined the Raiders. After the draft and nearly two months since the start of free agency. Not much is expected of free agents who sign that late in the offseason. But Johnson’s addition was not considered to be minor for this Raiders team which was still looking at a glaring hole at middle linebacker.
Despite his late free agent addition, and his age (35), he was instantly put in place as a starter. Jon Gruden even called him a ‘big time’ addition — not something you usually hear from a guy who had little to no interest from around the league and signed to a very friendly one-year contract.
Not to mention they have some catching up to do with their teammates who have already had been in the system for a month.
Acclimating to the scheme and the team is especially important for a middle linebacker. He doesn’t have the luxury of taking too much time to get used to his new defense. Even for a veteran like Johnson, there is an adjustment period.
“My abilities come out when I know what’s going on,” Johnson said after the team’s third OTA Tuesday. “For me to know what’s going on I have to gear down. Not rush it, but really, thoroughly get it down and make sure I have Paul Guenther’s defense really down, so I can start moving some pieces here and there. Start helping some guys out if they’re iffy on some things and telling certain guys what to do at sometimes.”
Signing him over bringing back 2017 leading tackler NaVorro Bowman seems at this point to be mostly a matter of the contract. Though the 14-year veteran Johnson still has something to offer as a player and has done some of his best work in coverage -- an area of increasing importance in a passing league.
“I take a lot of pride in mentally being like a quarterback on the field,” Johnson continued. “I’m kind of going against their quarterback. Being a MIKE backer, being the person in the middle, you have a lot of mental conversations on the field going against the quarterback. I just try to think ahead of the game. Of course, I can’t do it alone. I have to have guys with me. At the same time, I take a lot of pride in making sure I drop in the right coverage or at times, it’s not only dropping in the right area, it’s knowing when to take your chances and knowing your leverage. Playing your leverage helps you out. I’ve been pretty good with that over the last few years. I can still run around, so that’s pretty good.”
What Johnson can still provide as a player on the field remains to be seen. What we know he provides is a proven, experienced veteran to mentor younger players.
“Man, Paul Guenther’s defense, it’s very aggressive. So many different looks. The onus is really on the linebackers to learn a lot of stuff. That’s good for myself because I know a lot. It’s putting a lot of pressure on me to learn it quickly. Learn it well enough where I can put my own flavor in making plays on this defense. I’m having fun with it now. The last couple of days have been my best days, running around.
“I was telling the young guys this once you get the system down, because everybody is learning a new system. Everybody is in it. Once you can get it down really well, you’ll look a lot faster out there on the field. We all can run fast and jump high, but mentally, once you got it down, all your abilities, your talents can show out there on the field. That’s what we’re doing right now. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there.”
There are several young linebackers in this unit. None have shown more promise than Nicholas Morrow who came on strong last season as an undrafted rookie out of Division III Greenville.
Morrow appeared in all 16 games last season, starting five games at weak side linebacker late in the season. He excelled in coverage — an area Raiders linebacker have struggled the past few seasons.
At that time Morrow had former All Pro Bowman as an example to follow. Now he has Johnson.
“We’re actually getting a lot of mental reps. Especially with the young guys,” Johnson continued. “I’m always like, ‘Hey, what’s the play?’ or ‘What do you need to do on this? Make sure you’re looking.’ I’ve been taken Nick Morrow under my wing a little bit. Very athletic, young linebacker. Has all the skills. Mentally, just trying to get him up to date so he can mentally play a lot more.”
Although Morrow has taken a backseat to Emmanuel Lamur at weak side linebacker, it’s early yet. Lamur is a veteran of defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s scheme, so he’s naturally ahead of the curve. If Morrow continues taking his cues from Johnson, he could find himself starting alongside him at some point. Not to mention it gives Morrow the best chance to succeed in the NFL.
As for Johnson, his first week was tough, mainly due to terminology. But each week he has gotten better. Though he pointed out it could be preseason and perhaps even into the regular season before the long time Chiefs middle linebacker feels anywhere near as comfortable as he would like.