Yesterday in Suwanee, Georgia, third-year running back Gartrell Johnson took first-team reps for the Atlanta Falcons while Michael Turner rehabs from groin surgery. Johnson, a 5’10, 218-lb. runner from Colorado State was my eighth-ranked RB in the 2009 Rookie Scouting Portfolio, above James Davis, Andre Brown, Mike Goodson, Devin Moore, and Jeremiah Johnson. In fact, Johnson’s game grades were consistently higher than Rashad Jennings, LeSean McCoy, Donald Brown, and Beanie Wells. But those grades a reflection of a player’s execution of techniques and not his potential and Johnson’s lack of top end speed was one of a few factors that led me to believe his upside in the NFL was closer to maxed out than the four players I just mentioned who I ranked above him.
The San Diego Chargers drafted Johnson in 2009, but cut him before camp ended. The Giants added Johnson and the rookie earned a limited amount of playing time during the season. The Giants waived Johnson in early September of 2010 and a few weeks later the Falcons added the runner. With Michael Turner on the shelf during camp, Johnson has clearly impressed enough for fans to begin remember his name. I’m going to get you acquainted with his game by sharing brief excerpts of my 2009 analysis of Johnson (where there is 6 pages of analysis devoted entirely to him).
Accompanying my analysis is the great video analysis from DraftGuys.com
Thanks to Sigmund Bloom, Cecil Lammey, and Marc Faletti for this excellent segment.
Grade: 87 (A contributor in a committee capable of starting and producing when needed)
Upside: Maxed – Johnson’s lack of top end speed doesn’t make him a consistent big play threat. His quickness at times is questionable.
Ranking Assessment: Johnson’s upside is much more limited than some of the guys on this list, but he understands how to run downhill and he’s a punishing back with good feet. He is patient and he demonstrates skill at identifying openings down field. His hands are an asset and I think he’s an underrated player. He reminds me of a slower Michael Turner. Backs like Johnson are underrated because they lack top speed, but they wear out defenses. Marion Barber, Mike Anderson, and Jamal Anderson also come to mind due to his lack of top end speed, wiggle, burst out of his cuts, and finishing power.
Overall Strengths: A very strong downhill runner who makes one cut and then bulls through arm tackles. He is capable of dragging defenders wrapped around him for extra yardage. Johnson has enough of a burst to get decent gains through open seams in the line. There is evidence of acceleration out of his cuts.
Johnson is especially good at lowering his shoulders into hits and he’ll punish defenders in the secondary who attempt to take on Johnson at his core. He has tree trunks for thighs and quick feet to make defenders miss at the line of scrimmage when he has his shoulder’s downhill. He lacks the speed to get around the corner untouched, but he has enough balance and power to gain positive yardage even when he encounters contact as he’s running downhill. He’s not a runner defenders will want to hit high.
Johnson shows some patience and he can pick and slide to set up blocks at the line of scrimmage to get to the second level of a defense. I like that Johnson doesn’t look to run over defenders in the open field when he has an opportunity to bend the run away from them.
Overall Weaknesses: Get Johnson moving east west and force him to make a lateral move and he’s easier to take down with even an ankle tackle. He has moments where he needs to get his pads lower when he’s running between the tackles, especially when there isn’t a large crease. Despite his physical build, he doesn’t keep his legs moving after contact as much as I would like to see. This might be an effort issue more than a conceptual problem.
Johnson makes the effort as a pass blocker. He throws his body around, but he doesn’t show the technique to sustain blocks. He needs to work on his positioning and learn to deliver a punch where he can use his hands to sustain blocks. Although he has good hands he needs to develop more skill running routes near the perimeter of the field.
Johnson’s upside is limited because he lacks that extra gear to take a big run the distance. At least four of his runs over 10 yards in the first half of the Fresno State game (12/20/2008) could have been touchdowns if he had that extra gear. I like his ability to change direction, but it is limited. His hip flexibility is okay, but nothing special. He won’t consistently make cuts on a dime.