FOXBORO, Mass. — Move over, Gunner Olszewski. Jakob Johnson now owns the title of unlikeliest player to land a New England Patriots roster spot this season.
This past weekend, Johnson, a native of Stuttgart, Germany, became the first player from the NFL’s International Pathway Program to earn a spot on a team’s 53-man roster.
The 24-year-old fullback was promoted from the Patriots’ practice squad after starter James Develin was ruled out for Sunday’s matchup with the New York Jets with a neck injury. He made his regular-season NFL debut against the Jets, playing six snaps on the punt return team and two more on game-ending kneeldowns in a 30-14 victory at Gillette Stadium.
Having played four seasons in the SEC at Tennessee, football wasn’t a completely foreign concept for Johnson, as it is for many International Pathway players. But, as Patriots coach Bill Belichick explained Monday in a conference call, the Patriots weren’t particularly high on him when he joined the team in April.
After pausing to formulate his answer, Belichick said the Patriots absolutely would not have signed Johnson — who played tight end for the Stuttgart Scorpions in the German Football League last season — as a conventional undrafted free agent had the NFL not assigned him to their roster. (Each season, a different NFL division is chosen to host four international players, with each team receiving one.) They’d heard a positive review of Johnson’s intangibles from Tennessee head coach Butch Jones but still considered him the longest of all long shots to crack the roster.
“He was not on our radar,” Belichick said. “I don’t think we ever would have ever signed him. When the (international) players were listed, there were a group of players that fell into this category, and we looked at that group. It was kind of like, ‘Is there anybody here you want?’ Based on some research and follow-up at Tennessee, Butch recommended him to me. We didn’t really know much about the other guys, and I can’t say that we were excited to have him. But based on what Butch said, it felt like he was a good player to work with, would work hard, would really try to get better, was a good teammate and all those things that he had showed at Tennessee.
“I would say he definitely started off as the 91st player on the roster and had a long, long, long way to go 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.”
After a nondescript training camp, Johnson stood out positively during the preseason. He was particularly visible in an exhibition win over Tennessee, during which he leveled a Titans defender to clear space on a Brandon Bolden touchdown run.
Johnson unsurprisingly was not included on the Patriots’ initial 53-man roster, but after he was cut and cleared waivers, New England signed him to its 10-man practice squad rather than using its international player exemption, which would have allowed the team to carry Johnson throughout the season but would have barred him promotion to the 53.
“When I got cut and signed to the regular practice squad, I just saw it as an opportunity for that window to still be open to play this season,” Johnson told NESN.com after Sunday’s game. “And then just, like the other practice squad guys, our mindset is that we prepare every week like we’re playing in the game, and if something happens and we get the opportunity, we’re ready.”
That the team even left open the possibility of Johnson appearing in a regular-season game illustrated just how much he had improved in a few short months. Belichick called his growth as a player “remarkable.”
“Certainly, his physicality and his toughness showed up in the preseason games and the preseason practices against Detroit and Tennessee,” Belichick said. “He steadily worked his way into a backup fullback role and was activated for the game (Sunday). I wouldn’t say it was quite a Steve Neal rise, but it’s somewhere in that neighborhood. What he’s done has been remarkable, and in a relatively short period of time.”
To be compared to Neal, the college wrestler-turned-Patriots guard whom Belichick adores, is high praise for any New England player.
“He works extremely hard,” Belichick continued. “He’s one of the first players here every morning. He studies his notecards. You see him sitting in the dining room just studying notecards, going over plays. He puts literally every ounce of energy he has into this job and into our team, and he’s totally earned everybody’s respect for that. He’s a young player. He has a long way to go. There’s a lot of room for improvement. But he works very hard at it.”
Unless Develin’s injury sidelines him for a significant period of time, Johnson’s stay on the active roster likely will be brief. There’s no need for any team, not even the fullback-loving Patriots, to carry multiple players at that position. But even making it to this point has been an achievement in itself for the underdog German.
“I would say there’s a lot of guys that are in the international program that I’m sure will work their way onto a roster eventually,” Johnson said. “I’ve just got this opportunity now, so I’ll do my best to take advantage of it.”
UPDATE (5:15 p.m. ET): The Patriots placed Develin on injured reserve Monday afternoon. Unless they choose to completely eliminate the fullback position from their offense, Johnson should stick around for the foreseeable future.