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Boston College guard Zion Johnson is an NFL Draft sleeper

Boston College guard Zion Johnson is an NFL Draft sleeper
Photo Credit: Boston College Athletics

The decision for prospects to transfer “up” from FCS to FBS is often rare and carries a low success rate. For current Boston College guard Zion Johnson, the opportunity to play at a higher-level program despite his success at the FCS level was too great to pass up. Boston College has a long history of producing NFL-caliber offensive linemen, and Johnson will likely be no different.

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Where Zion Johnson has seen success in the past

Johnson started 19 games and was named to the Pioneer Football League First Team All-Conference at Davidson. He then decided to bet on himself and put his name in the transfer portal. Shortly after, Boston College reached out, and their run-heavy dominance appealed to him.

Johnson played at guard in all 13 games and started the final seven for Boston College last season. Despite this small sample size, Johnson impressed and looks to follow the paths of former Eagles Anthony Costanzo and Chris Lindstrom into the NFL.

Related | Farabaugh’s 4-round 2021 NFL Mock Draft

Johnson was named to the All-ACC second team last season, and won ACC Offensive Linemen of the Week twice, despite only starting seven games. For this season, Zion has already been named to the Outland Trophy Watch List – an award handed out to the top offensive lineman in the country. You can certainly see why he made this list when watching his tape.

Breaking down Johnson’s game

There was another Zion in sports known for being a freak athlete, but this Zion is a fantastic athlete in his own right. Boston College often used him as a pulling guard to play-side to great effect. He sprung open several of AJ Dillon and David Bailey’s big plays last season when he was in the game.

 

Zion is listed at 6’3, 310 pounds, and doesn’t look like he carries any bad weight. He moves effortlessly in space. His quickness puts him in position to make blocks at the second level with ease. His lower-half quickness stood out, as he was balanced and always in control in pass protection. He mirrors pass rushers and rarely gets knocked off balance by power.

Besides athleticism, what makes Zion standout? 

Johnson demonstrated outstanding balance and body control to stay in front of the multitude of NFL-pass rushers he faced. He displays the textbook definition of playing through the whistle, and he has an excellent feel for keeping rushers squared up with him. His base is stout, rarely getting driven back by power alone.

His play strength is top-notch. Despite playing at 310 pounds, Johnson is able to drive defenders out of the way and bust open rushing lanes. He uncorks his lower half with ease, allowing him to explode into contact and pop defenders with great effect. He times his punches well, oft resembling a piston firing, and is comfortable asserting his dominance in the rep.

One of the most fun things about scouting offensive linemen, especially dominant ones, is watching their ability to finish their blocks – in layman’s terms, putting the dude (or dudes) in front of them into the dirt. Zion seems to enjoy this and regularly uses this play strength to bury defenders and continue the play. Johnson doesn’t just make a play and quit for the rep- he’s constantly looking for work during the play and doesn’t let up until the whistle blows.

For only playing one season at the FBS level, Zion Johnson looked like a seasoned pro against the ACC opponents. It was hard not to notice him when studying A.J. Dillon from last year’s draft, and his tape delivered. Zion Johnson is among the top guards in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Where Zion Johnson has to improve

While displaying numerous NFL-caliber traits, there are a few areas that Johnson has to shore up before taking that next step into the NFL. It’s worth mentioning that Johnson has only played left guard, so projecting any versatility is just that, a projection.

Boston College’s talented OL coach Phil Trautwein left to take the Penn State job, and he is being replaced by Matt Applebaum from Towson. There will be an adjustment period for Applebaum and Johnson with this new scheme and coaching- especially with circumstances being as they are.

Related | Top interior offensive linemen to know for the 2021 NFL Draft

A lot of Johnson’s problems can be smoothed out with experience. Johnson looked a tad slow to react to stunts. While he can get away with this in college, that timing has to get ironed out in the NFL. His down-to-down consistency, while improving the more he played, still isn’t quite fully developed. There were definitely more highs than lows throughout his tape, but he has to produce a full season decreasing those lows.

Johnson also only being listed at 310 pounds is slightly concerning. Despite demonstrating excellent play strength and a stout anchor, 310 pounds is well below NFL standards. If he can add another 5-10 pounds to his frame and keep his mobility and agility, scouts may feel better about his frame holding up at the next level.

2021 NFL Draft projection

There wasn’t a lot of faults with Zion Johnson’s tape. It was one of the most surprising evaluations I had this summer, as he has relatively little buzz. Johnson has plenty of positives to bank on in the scouting department, and a lot of his weaknesses can be shored up over time.

While Johnson may not be an absolute freak at his position a la Quenton Nelson, he is a quality guard option for the NFL. Pro Football Network’s Tony Pauline nailed it on the head saying Johnson should be a Senior Bowl invite- and an easy one at that.

Pauline stated that Zion has the attention of NFL scouts already. In his ACC Summer scouting preview, Pauline wrote:

Zion Johnson is well-liked in the scouting community, and scouts I’ve spoken with stamp him as a mid-round choice…At the top of his game, he controls opponents at the line and shows a lot of skill blocking in motion…If Johnson meets expectations and plays at a high level throughout the 2020 season, I would imagine we will see him at the Senior Bowl and in the draft’s initial 125 picks.

Projecting guards in the draft is difficult, as positional value often dictates the selection. Johnson is a fit for both gap and zone schemes and is a plug-and-play guard option. If Johnson irons out the inconsistencies in his game, he has an excellent shot at being selected on Day 2 in the 2021 NFL Draft.

AJ Schulte is an NFL Draft Analyst for PFN. You can follow him on Twitter @AJDraftScout.

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