Three reasons Mustafa Johnson can be a top-five defensive tackle

The Colorado Buffaloes top defensive tackle Mustafa Johnson has the potential that can help him crash the top five among the position in 2021.

It has been a long time since we have discussed a defensive tackle from Colorado as a high draft pick. The Buffaloes have had players at other positions selected fairly high in recent memory, including wide receiver Laviska Shenault, who was drafted in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. However, Mustafa Johnson is set to be the first defensive tackle from Colorado who could hear his name early in the draft.

The last time a defensive lineman from Colorado was drafted in the first round was way back in 2003 when defensive end Tyler Brayton was taken 32nd overall by the Oakland Raiders. Brayton played nine seasons in the NFL with the Raiders, Carolina Panthers, and Indianapolis Colts, totaling 318 tackles and 17.5 sacks in 141 games.

If you want to find the last first-round defensive tackle Colorado produced, you would have to go all the way back to 1993, when the Philadelphia Eagles took Leonard Renfro 24th overall. Renfro lasted all of two seasons in the league. Needless to say, the position hasn’t fared well out of Colorado, but Johnson is here to buck that trend. Not only is he going to be drafted, but he could also be considered in the top five defensive tackles in this draft class.

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Johnson can model his game after Aaron Donald

Let me start by saying he’s not quite like Aaron Donald at this stage of his career, but then again, not many are. Let’s also keep in mind that Donald slipped a bit in the draft because of his size, and he didn’t really start making noise until his dominant Senior Bowl week performance. Looking back, hindsight certainly tells us he was a steal at 13th overall.

But we are talking about a prospect in Johnson that has a similar size (6’2″, 290 pounds) to Donald and one that is very versatile along Colorado’s defensive line. And Johnson has been compared, even if somewhat jokingly, to the All-Pro by his now-former head coach Mel Tucker before the 2019 season, although he made a stronger comparison to Tyson Alualu.

“Tyson was a really stocky, low-to-the-ground guy, just like Mustafa. … What I remember of Alualu is that he was very consistent. You knew what you were going to get from [him] every game. It might not have been flashy, but you were going to get from him game in and game out”, Tucker said last summer. He also described Johnson as “not the tallest guy, but that stocky guy with a really good motor. He’s a great run defender and enough initial quickness, fluid in his hips, and is violent with his hands. He’s also smart, which makes him a good inside rusher.”

Johnson has demonstrated plenty of versatility along the line

Colorado likes to move Johnson around the line, as he will line up on either side of the line as well as at multiple different techniques. On top of that, he has even stood up at times to rush the passer. His athleticism and hand usage have been part of what allowed him to succeed in various positions. Additionally, he will read his keys and find the football, which is an extremely valuable trait.

Johnson is also aggressive when attacking the quarterback on pass-rush situations, which has helped him rack up 12.5 sacks, on top of 20.5 tackles for a loss, in his 20 games for Colorado since coming over from junior college for the 2018 season. Injuries did limit those numbers in 2019, but he did have 8.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for a loss in his first year with Colorado.

He can enjoy similar success in the NFL, either as an undersized three-technique or as a five-technique setting the edge and rushing the passer. This is because he is disciplined on the line and has a nose for the football. He is not out of position very often and can also free up his linebackers to help make plays as well.

Johnson is already a proven leader

Even though Johnson has only been with the program for two years, he is already showing excellent leadership qualities for the team, both on and off the field. Johnson has fought to come back from injuries he suffered in 2019, as he was limited to just eight games last season including an injury that knocked him out of the Arizona State game very early on.

That willingness to fight back and try to play through injury has meant that the younger players on the Buffaloes are already looking to Johnson for motivation. That, combined with his ability and willingness to play at multiple positions across the line has cemented his spot as a leader for this defense, a trait that NFL teams covet highly. Just in his first year with the team, he started all 12 games and played nearly 80 percent of the defensive snaps for Tucker.

Johnson also already has some valuable accolades to his name, including first-team All-Pac-12 by the Associated Press in 2018 and he was also named to the third team All-Pac-12 by Phil Steele and an honorable mention by the coaches in 2018. He was on his way to more of the same, if not higher levels, had he not been injured in 2019. Expect to see him on many preseason teams later this summer.

2020 should be an interesting year for Johnson, who was hoping to hit 10 sacks and 24 tackles for loss (which would tie the school record) in 2019. However, after his injuries put a stop to that ambition, he certainly will have the same motivation in 2020. Entering his senior season, where he will be firmly in the sights of NFL scouts, that motivation could set Johnson up well to enjoy the biggest spotlight of his football career.