2016 NFL Draft Prospects: Austin Johnson – NT – Penn State

By MICHAEL FAIRLIE //

As much as we would all like to see Damon “Snacks” Harrison back in the green and white for 2016 and beyond, it is going to be incredibly difficult for the Jets to fit his new contract under the salary cap. After being signed as an undrafted free agent out of William Penn University in 2012, Harrison worked his way into the starting lineup in 2013 and has never looked back.

Snacks has gone on to become one of the best Nose Tackles in the NFL, and from all indications, he is looking to be paid as such. This means that if the Jets want to keep him they are going to be looking at a contract of at least $6 million a year, and that is on the low end.

If you add on the fact that Muhammad Wilkerson is also up for a ridiculous payday this offseason on a defensive line that still has the significant contracts of recent first round picks Leonard Williams and Sheldon Richardson on the books, it is unlikely that they will be able to keep the whole group together.

If they franchise tag Wilkerson it will cost them approximately $15.5 million in 2016, whereas Harrison would cost them around $13.4 million to tag. They can only tag one of the two and after last year’s spending spree there is not enough cap room to retain everyone.

Given the fact that Harrison could likely be on his way to a new team, the Jets will have a humongous hole to fill in the middle of their star-studded defensive line. The only other nose tackle that is currently under contract with the team for 2016 is last year’s 7th round pick from Northwestern State-Louisiana, Deon Simon.

Although he opened up eyes at the 2015 Senior Bowl and recorded 35 reps on the 225-pound bench press at the NFL Scouting Combine, the 6’4, 332-pound behemoth saw no game action in his rookie season and has a lot to prove on the NFL level before he can be counted on.

Free agency is always an option, but there is not much worth mentioning in this year’s list of NT’s on the market. The biggest name after Damon Harrison is probably the 32-year-old Haloti Ngata, who’s game has significantly declined since his days of dominance on the Baltimore Raven’s D-Line.

Ian Williams (27) and B.J. Raji (30) are also available, but although either of them would theoretically provide a decent replacement, they have both been plagued by injury throughout their careers and cannot be realistically counted on to fill the void left by Harrison.

This brings us to the 2016 NFL Draft, where there are a handful of names that stand out as possible 3-4 NT’s in the NFL. One of the most alluring among the group is Penn State’s Austin Johnson.

Expected to be chosen anywhere between the end of the first round and the third round of the draft, the 6’4 325-pound Johnson substantially improved his game in each of his three years with the Nittany Lions, which was topped off by a junior year in 2015 that saw him record 78 total tackles, 6.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss.

Much more of run-stuffer than a pass rusher, Johnson is particularly adept at obstructing the middle by taking on multiple blockers, while mirroring running backs movements and freeing up his teammates to get tackles. With legs the size of tree trunks, he has considerably fluid footwork for a man his size as well as the sheer strength and coordination to keep his balance when fighting off double-teams.

Incredibly impressive with his hands, Johnson also has an uncanny ability to shed blockers along with the awareness to locate the ball carrier and surprising pursuit skills for such a large man.

There is never a surefire bet in the draft, and every player, no matter how talented they might be, is not without their shortcomings. Johnson sometimes has a tendency to get caught up in blocks, relying too much on his strength to power by them as opposed to using his hands to maneuver his way through.

Austin also had an unimpressive showing at the Senior Bowl, where he earned an invite despite the fact that he just finished his junior season. Although that might cause Johnson to slip a bit in the draft, he will still most likely be selected in the first three rounds.

One of the biggest indicators of how well a player will adapt to the increased level of competition in the NFL is their willingness to put in the work to improve their game. Austin Johnson is known for his non-stop motor and has proven over the course of his college career that he is enthusiastic about getting better every step of the way.

Damon Harrison may be leaving some rather large shoes to fill, assuming he signs with a new team, but Johnson seems to have what it takes to at least try them on and see if they fit.

You can read my Jets Pre-Combine Mock Draft article from 2/24/16 by clicking below:

New York Jets Pre-Combine Mock Draft

You can read my article from 2/19/16 on NYJetsNews.Com about a few options for the Jets in the 1st Round of NFL Draft by clicking the following link:

3 Possible NY Jets 1st Round Picks

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