EAGAN — Every year around draft time you will see some type of TV bit where successful NFL players read reports from draft analysts that turned out to be dead wrong. It doesn’t look like Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Bisi Johnson will have a chance to do that because, in his case, they nailed it.
NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein wrote of the Vikings’ seventh-round pick in 2019: “Football character, intelligence and core special teams ability give him a chance to find work early and eventually become a dependable WR3.”
With an injury to Chad Beebe, Johnson has stepped into the WR3 role behind Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen and quickly become a dependable receiver. Since Beebe’s injury, Johnson has had back-to-back four-catch weeks, producing 35 yards through the air against Chicago and 43 last Sunday in New York.
“I think the biggest thing he’s done is he’s been very reliable,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “He gets to the right places, he can play all three positions so he gets himself in the game and does a good job in all areas.”
Out of nine receivers drafted in the sixth round or later in 2019, Johnson is one of only two with more than five catches (Arizona’s KeaSean Johnson has 13). In fact, the Vikings drafted another receiver, Oregon’s Dillon Mitchell, before the former Colorado State standout.
While the Vikings offense was similar to his scheme in college, Johnson faced an uphill climb to learn an NFL offense. He was also toward the bottom of the depth chart with players like Brandon Zylstra and Jordan Taylor, who had previous NFL experience, aiming for spots as well.
“Coming in as a rookie, you’re a later-round pick, there’s definitely that thing in the back of your head saying ‘oh my god am I going to get cut today, am I going to get cut tomorrow?'” Johnson told SKOR North on Wednesday. “I really didn’t focus on that, once you focus on going out there and playing football and not worrying about making mistakes and getting cut the next day then you can just play and that’s what I focus on day to day. I need to get my job done today and then I need to come in the next done and get my job done.”
As if the pressure of training camp wasn’t enough, Zimmer called out the receivers as a group in early August for struggling to get plays correct and line up in the right spots. So Johnson took the approach that he was going to learn every detail of the Vikings’ scheme in order to give himself a shot.
“This was a very similar offense to my college offense and just a lot more college offense just a lot more terminology,” Johnson said. “That was a given coming into the NFL, you knew that was going to happen. It was just a matter of looking at some of the similarities, understanding those and adding onto the new terminology that they have here and just studying hours on it at night.”
If you look around the Vikings locker room, you don’t have to crane your neck very far to find players who have used a similar model to earn jobs as later-round picks or undrafted players. Neither Thielen or Diggs was drafted high, safety Anthony Harris worked his way up from the practice squad and seventh-round picks like DE Ifeadi Odenigbo and Stephen Weatherly have carved out roles. One common thread between them all is a high level of understanding for the game.
Johnson said he has always been interested in all the moving parts but to fully use that knowledge to his advantage he needed to get his position down fully.
“You just have to know your job so well that you can go out there and start reading defenses,” he said. “If you don’t know your job well then you can’t understand what you are doing and what the defense is doing. That’s really where I harp so much on knowing the playbook, knowing your job and knowing everybody else’s job on the offense.”
And when it comes to reading defenses at the NFL level, he had to put in the work both at TCO Performance Center and away during camp to become fluent in the NFL game.
“All the different ways DBs can line up and things like that,” Johnson said. “At the end of the day it’s still defense, you’re still going to play two-high safeties, single-high safety, where is the safety going to roll down to, which flat or something like that. Are they going to roll the corner to a two-high and roll the safety down to the flat and invert, things like that. It’s just defense, you can’t really change it up you can just make it more complex.”
Bisi Johnson converted all four of his targets Sunday and has supplanted himself as the #Vikings WR3.
Add another 7th round HIT for Rick Spielman onto the list. pic.twitter.com/piSRmqJ022
— Luke Inman (@Luke_SpinmanNFL) October 8, 2019
Having two star receivers who weren’t drafted high is certainly inspiring for a seventh-rounder but creating a relationship with Diggs has been an added boost to Johnson’s development.
“We talk a lot,” Johnson said. “Coming in and gaining a relationship with a vet like that, it’s good. It makes you feel like you are wanted in this offense and wanted to be on this team. I think building relationships with teammates is a huge thing.”
Diggs said on Wednesday that he expected to see these types of results knowing the effort Johnson put into the offseason.
“I talk to Bisi every day, we’re in the same room so we spend a lot of time together,” Diggs said. “I respect his approach to the game and how he takes it really seriously. Seeing him having early success isn’t a surprise.”
Diggs has a little experience with going from a late pick to an impact player in Year 1. In 2015 Diggs was inactive for the first three games and ultimately found his way onto the field and caught 53 passes as a rookie.
“Blocking out all the distractions in your life, honing in on your craft, trying to get better and doing your job,” Diggs said. “He does a great job at it, he doesn’t do nothin’ more, nothin’ less. Just goes out and does his job, that’s the best way to do it.”
Things change quickly in the NFL. Heading into the last two weeks, Johnson proved he can play in the NFL and become an outlier simply by having a job in the league. But now he will be expected to be a weapon on a team that needs reliability from its No. 3 spot.
Johnson said he’s going to continue to treat the NFL like a learning process and make sure he knows exactly where he’s supposed to be on the field so quarterback Kirk Cousins can find him.
“It’s just going over a lot of plays, going over scripts,” he said. “Re-writing plays out, drawing them up and making sure I understand them. If I don’t know exactly what I’m doing on a play then I’m going to write it down.”