The Las Vegas Raiders are in an interesting position when it comes to their offensive line this offseason. The Raiders will likely be looking for guards and/or tackles and luckily, Zion Johnson, offensive lineman from Boston College, has experience playing both spots.
OL | Boston College | 6’3” 316 pounds | Bowie, MD | November 28th, 1999 (22.1)
Zion Johnson didn’t receive a single FBS scholarship offer coming out of high school and ended up going to FCS Davidson College — of Steph Curry fame — to begin his college career. The late bloomer earned first-team All-Conference honors as a sophomore for the Wildcats and transferred to Boston College for the final three years of his eligibility.
Johnson played both left guard and left tackle in the Eagle’s offense that featured a zone-heavy rushing attack with a lot of play-action, area and slide protection in the passing game. He allowed 36 pressures — three sacks — and PFF run-blocking grades of 69.1, 75.1 and 84.4 during his three seasons in Chestnut Hill. His most productive season in pass protection came in his first and last years at BC, when he played more guard than tackle. He allowed 14 pressures on 1,578 opportunities in years one and three, and 22 on 704 in year two, per Pro Football Focus.
- Good size for an NFL offensive lineman and has some room to put on some more weight, he’s a “lean” 316 pounds
- Quick off the ball out of either a two- or three-point stance and on run or pass plays
- On 45-degree pass sets, he has good agility to cover ground laterally and has the footwork to maintain a half-man relationship with the rusher. He looks much more comfortable and has cleaner footwork on the 45-degree sets versus the vertical sets.
- He’s aggressive and gets his hands involved immediately on quick or jump sets, allowing him to use his strength to control defensive linemen
- When his initial responsibility is the penetrator on line games — i.e. he’s playing guard against a TE stunt — he’s quick to recognize, pass off and pick up the stunt
- Is decent at recovering after losing in pass protection by using his momentum to ride the pass rusher out or inside. He’s better at this when playing guard than tackle as the pass rusher has less room to clear their hips/clear him to the outside
- If his pass blocking technique improves — hands inside and more knee bend — he has more than enough strength to anchor against all types of bull rushers. Right now, he does fine against short-armed rushers who can’t get as much extension
- Looks for work if uncovered in pass protection
- He’s much more physical at the point of attack on base blocks when playing guard and does a better job of keeping his feet moving on contact with the strength to generate some movement against defensive linemen
- On zone runs, he understands angles to get his head on the correct side of the defensive lineman and recognizes when to lose ground initially to give himself a better chance at making the block
- Impressive agility and footwork to execute reach and scoop blocks on outside zone, he has no problems reaching a defensive tackle lined up outside of him that isn’t playing a jet technique
- Has the upper body strength to turn a defensive tackle’s shoulders as the second blocker on a scoop block
- On inside zone, he uses good angles and pacing when working up to the second level to keep his target/the linebacker on his inside shoulder. At the point of contact, he leverages his size and strength advantage to create rushing lanes and generate some movement against linebackers, and he doesn’t lean as much when blocking the second level to help stay engaged.
- When executing combo blocks, he recognizes and picks up crashing backers with ease
Areas of improvement:
- Takes inefficient, short and choppy steps on his vertical sets, which could cause issues against speed rushers at the next level, especially at tackle
- Doesn’t keep his hands in tight when pass blocking, leaving them susceptible to getting swiped away by pass rushers
- He’s late and wide with his punch in pass protection, exposing his chest to bull rushers and that, combined with high pad level, leaning and stopping his feet on contact, makes it difficult for him to anchor against long-armed defensive tackles
- Stopping his feet and leaning also leads to issues with his change of direction, making it difficult to defend against inside stick or counter moves. Feet stopping issues only occurs in pass protection, not when run blocking.
- On the recoveries mentioned above, he does toe a tight line between a good block and holding
- Struggles to recognize and pickup/pass off line games if the rusher he’s initially responsible for is the looper — i.e. playing guard versus an ET stunt, opposite of above — or if it’s a delayed line game
- He also has an issue with leaning after contact when run blocking horizontally on outside zone, leading to issues staying engaged. For example, if a three-technique gets a jet call and immediately penetrates so he can’t reach the defensive tackle, he’ll slide off the block and won’t be able to ride the tackle’s momentum to the sideline.
- That, combined with his wide/late hands and feet stopping on contact also shows up on base blocks, limiting his push against physical defensive tackles
NFL Mock Draft Database consensus big board rank: 38th, 2nd round
Part of Johnson’s projection is hung up on what position he’ll play at the next level. Personally, I think he’s better suited to play guard as the numbers above speak for themselves, and he looks much more comfortable using 45-degree and jump sets in pass protection than vertical. That’ll likely push him into the Day 2 category, but any team that likes to use a lot of zone runs should be more than happy to see him available in the second or third rounds.
What do we need to know?
How long can he get away with a shaky pass protection technique on the inside? The biggest concern I have about Johnson playing guard in the NFL is how well his anchor can hold up. As mentioned above, I think he has the strength to be fine if he cleans a few things up, but it’s a matter of how long that will take or how patient the coaching staff is.
Fit with the Raiders:
Much like what I mentioned with Darian Kinnard, the Boston College product’s fit with the Raiders is dependent on what the next coaching staff and general manager wants to do with Alex Leatherwood. However, this time it’s the opposite scenario from Kinnard. If the plan is to kick Leatherwood back outside, Johnson should be on the table and vice versa if that isn’t the plan.
The other element about Johnson’s fit is what type of offense Las Vegas is going to be running. He was rarely asked to execute gap run blocks over the last couple of years at BC, so an offense using that scheme wouldn’t be as natural of a transition. That’s not to say he can’t do it, but he would be executing techniques that he doesn’t have as much experience with.
Beautiful use of a read step from Zion Johnson (LT):— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) January 25, 2022
-Short initial step to see where the DL wants to go
-Recognizes slant, gets outside hand on the defender's side and keeps his feet moving
-Washes DE past center https://t.co/sqY6TjOqPu
Nice 2nd level block form Johnson (LT):— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) January 25, 2022
-1st step lateral to avoid the DL at LOS
-Uses good tempo and keeps LB on his inside shoulder
-Lets strength and size take over on contact to create a cutback lane https://t.co/eWJKWQShaI
It doesn't have to be much but another great angle and use of the size advantage to seal a backer and create a 2nd level lane by Johnson (LT) https://t.co/nIrxNLIxtt— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) January 25, 2022
This time on a combo block from Johnson (LT):— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) January 25, 2022
-Steps down to secure inside with LG
-A little late but redirects to pick up the crashing LB
-Seals LB and prevents the tackle, giving RB a chance https://t.co/Tnaoes2fHy
Would like to see him not lose initially but this is a great recovery by Johnson (LT) to get on the pass rusher's side and wash him down https://t.co/yS8tZdzOzd— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) January 25, 2022
Beautiful combo block by Johnson (LG):— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) January 25, 2022
-Works vertically initially, keeps his feet going through contact to generate some vertical movement on DT
-Works his hips around and creates wide rushing lane
-Stays engaged and finishes so the RB can break thru the LOS untouched https://t.co/gVq2AjwstZ