FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots capped training camp and joint practices against the Chicago Bears with an almost mind-numbingly boring session Wednesday.
It was lackadaisical, methodical and repetitive. The only even-slightly notable takeaway from the practice: Anthony Johnson, a defensive tackle who generated little to no headlines when he signed as a free agent in May, was running with the first-team defense. It was something to tuck away in an otherwise monotonous end to an exciting training camp.
Guess it wasn’t so mildly interesting.
Johnson broke out in a big way Thursday in the Patriots’ second preseason game, a 23-22 win over the Bears, after he sat out the first with an injury. Johnson recorded a half-sack, a tackle for loss, a batted pass and a hurry while playing as an interior pass rusher.
Safe to say he’s no longer one of the biggest long shots to make the Patriots’ 53-man roster.
And Johnson comes with an interesting story. He was a five-star recruit out of high school and played three years at LSU before bouncing for the NFL perhaps a year too early. He went undrafted and signed with the Miami Dolphins, who encouraged him to balloon up to 325 pounds — 35 pounds heavier than he played at LSU.
Miami placed Johnson on injured reserve after he played seven games as a rookie, and he failed to make the Dolphins’ roster in 2015. He was out of football until November, when the Washington Redskins gave him a shot, putting him on their practice squad. He then lost 50 pounds in six months — down to 275 — but at that point didn’t feel comfortable because he was playing too small. Washington cut him in May.
Johnson now is at 280 pounds with the Patriots — though he’s listed at 295 — and he finally feels comfortable.
“I just didn’t feel right when I was down in Miami playing nose tackle,” Johnson said. “I got too big … and just wasn’t moving the way I thought I could. I’m a quicker guy, quicker defensive lineman just trying to use my techniques and everything to the best of my ability.”
Johnson said he hasn’t been this light since middle school (“You can count that. Put that as a fact. Hashtag fact,” he says), when he was playing quarterback and thought he was going to be the next JaMarcus Russell.
He has no misconceptions about his role with the Patriots.
“That’s my game: vertical, up the field, just try to disrupt stuff in the backfield,” Johnson said. “I like to categorize myself as a silverback gorilla, man. Just go out there and be ferocious and just play.”
Johnson’s weight loss was so dramatic that head coach Bill Belichick “didn’t even recognize him” when the Patriots brought him in for a workout.
“I looked at him like, ‘Do we have the right guy here?’ It made me think my memory is even worse than I think it is,” Belichick said. “He’s kind of gone the other direction, going from being a big guy to really trimming down. His skills are different. He’s faster, he’s quicker, he’s obviously lighter, so he doesn’t have as much power, but he’s an interesting guy. He was a good player coming out of college. An interesting workout and a guy that is a lot different than most of our other interior defensive linemen.”
The rest of the Patriots’ defensive tackles are much stouter, all weighing at least 300 pounds. It was once thought Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Terrance Knighton, Markus Kuhn and rookie Vincent Valentine all were vying for four spots on the roster, but Johnson now is a wrench thrown into that mix. And Johnson’s standout performance comes at the right time with Branch serving a team-issued suspension, which Belichick called a “club matter” Thursday.
Thumbnail photo via Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports Images