If the New England Patriots had made a different decision with Jakob Johnson on Sept. 1, they would have been scrambling for a fullback this week.
Johnson, who’s from Germany, joined the Patriots as part of the NFL?s International Player Pathway Program in April. The Patriots could have designated Johnson as exempt when they signed him to their practice squad after roster cuts. If Johnson had been labeled exempt, then he would have been able to practice with the Patriots all season while not taking up a spot on their 10-man practice squad. He also could not have been signed to the Patriots’ 53-man roster all season.
The Patriots had three fullbacks in training camp this summer: Johnson, James Develin and Andrew Beck. Develin is on the Patriots’ 53-man roster. Beck was waived but claimed by the Denver Broncos. Johnson cleared waivers and was signed to the Patriots’ practice squad without an exemption.
Devlin suffered a neck injury in the Patriots’ Week 2 win over the Miami Dolphins. He didn’t practice all week and was ruled out for Sunday’s game against the New York Jets.
It seemed like an easy choice to make Johnson exempt before Week 1. Outside of losing his 2015 season to a broken leg, Develin has not missed a game with the Patriots. He’s been as durable as they come since joining the team in 2012. And if any team would value an 11th practice squad player, it would be the Patriots. However, if any team would need a backup fullback, it also would be the Patriots. If the Patriots had made Johnson exempt early this month, then they either would have needed to sign a fullback foreign to their offense or play without one Sunday.
It’s unclear how much playing time Johnson actually will see Sunday against the Jets. It’s unlikely he’ll play 40 percent of offensive snaps like Develin did through the first two weeks of the season. It seems reasonable to project Johnson will play mostly in goal-line situations and if the game gets out of hand.
Johnson, who’s 6-foot-3, 255 pounds, caught two passes for 14 yards in four preseason games. He played college football at Tennessee where he finished his career with three catches for 23 yards, 24 tackles and one forced fumble. He played for his hometown Stuttgart Scorpions of the German Football League in 2018. He carried the ball 10 times for 46 yards with four touchdowns and caught 43 passes for 474 yards with four more scores. He also registered 12 tackles.
Having a fullback is valuable in the Patriots’ offense, especially when both of the team’s tight ends — Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse — are questionable with ankle injuries.
Johnson will probably go back down to the practice squad when Develin is healthy, but he’ll fill a necessary role as a blocker, special-teamer and potential pass-catcher in the meantime.