A decade ago, smaller, faster interior defensive lineman were often overlooked in the draft process as the league was slow to adjust to the college game overall.
Now though, after the success of guys like future Hall of Famer Aaron Donald and rotational piece Milton Williams for the Super Bowl bound Philadelphia Eagles, the smaller, more athletic interior defensive linemen are becoming highly sought-after defensive pieces.
Enter Toledo’s Desjuan Johnson as part of the 2023 NFL Draft class.
Johnson, who measured in at 6020, 267 pounds with a 31 7/8-inch arms and 9 5/8-inch hands, looks to be the next undersized defensive lineman to make an impact at the NFL level. Though he checked in at 267 pounds here in Las Vegas, Johnson previously has played at 295 pounds in college but lost a bunch of weight after catching COVID, leading to the weight loss.
Despite being undersized, Johnson has held his own throughout the week at the East-West Shrine Bowl, showing off his quick-twitch movement skills and high-level hand usage inside, winning reps throughout the week.
Speaking with Steelers Depot inside the players’ lounge in the Velvet Room at the Luxor Hotel & Casino, Johnson said he’s aiming to be that next defensive lineman that can take over games with his athleticism.
“I like to watch a lot of guys, but I keep coming back to Aaron Donald,” Johnson said to Steelers Depot. “I try and watch as many 3-tech guys that I can, but I don’t fit everyone’s playing style. With AD though, I feel like I have a similar skillset to his. We have a very similar build, and I play like him.”
On tape, Johnson — who wore #99 at Toledo before switching to #1 last season to leave a legacy — certainly looked like Donald at times, wrecking the MAC season after season. In four years at Toledo, Johnson recorded 210 tackles, 51.5 tackles for loss, 15 sacks, three forced fumbles and one interception, earning First or Second-Team All-MAC three straight seasons for the Rockets.
In fact, Bowling Green head coach Scott Loeffler had high praise for Johnson early on in the 2022 season.
“He’s the Aaron Donald of the MAC,” Loeffler said to Toledo’s team site.
The Detroit native that studied Interdisciplinary Studies in college, entered his time with the Rockets as a 240-pound defensive end before bulking up to 295 in his senior season, showing he can play the 3-tech and even slide outside to defensive end in run-down situations, dominating in that area as well.
Though best suited for an even front where he can play in a NASCAR-style sub package as an interior defensive lineman against bigger guards where he can use his athleticism and explosiveness to win, Johnson is confident he can play in a 0- or 1-tech role as well, showing in the past as a heavier defensive lineman that he has what it takes to win at the point of attack.
Games against BYU in 2020 and Ohio State this past season are games that Johnson says highlights exactly what he brings to the table as a defensive lineman.
“I single-handedly tortured that BYU offensive line, and that was as a sophomore,” Johnson said. “That Ohio State game meant a lot to me though. It showed that me playing in the MAC, I could dominate anyone, and I was doing that playing with a strained MCL. I lived in that backfield every play, and I think it really opened eyes regarding my play.”
Here in Las Vegas, Johnson has been working under the New England Patriots’ coaching staff. Though he’s gotten overshadowed by the likes of Penn State’s PJ Mustipher and Ohio State’s Jerron Cage, Johnson has shown his skillset as an interior pass rusher, especially in 1v1 drills, proving to be a serious handful for the interior linemen.
Flying under the radar is nothing new for Johnson though. Underecruited coming out of Detroit, Johnson landed with Toledo and quietly worked his way up. He recently became the first member of his family to graduate and is close to achieving a lifelong dream of reaching the NFL.
That’s a dream his father, Dion Johnson, once had but tragically had that dream cut short after being shot in Detroit.
On the evening of the day he was supposed to try out with the Chicago Bears on May 11, 2002, Johnson stepped out of the family home to reportedly run an errand. Shots were fired by an unknown person for an unknown reason, which tragically struck Johnson in the head. He was disabled and later died two years later in his sleep.
Being this close and being able to take that next step that his father was never able to means a lot to Johnson, who has worked hard to reach this point in his career while wearing, in his words, a heavy crown within his family.
“Just the opportunity is life changing. My Dad didn’t make it this far. So every step I take, nobody in my family ever did it,” Johnson said. “It means a lot to be the first in my family to do this. My Uncle always told me that it’s heaviest for those who wear the crown. The pressure has been a weight vest I’ve been wearing my whole life. This is an opportunity and all I need is that chance.”
Johnson is getting that chance and showed his abilities to the NFL world up close and personal. Next up for the Toledo product is hopefully a Combine invite and a strong showing at the Toledo Pro Day, where he expects to put up great testing numbers. Even with the limitations his frame might provide on paper, Johnson has played with a serious chip on his shoulder throughout his career and simply makes plays where he’s lined up.
That’s what has him on the NFL’s radar and has him looking like the new-age interior defensive linemen the league covets.