At the start of free agency, the San Diego Chargers added depth to the tight end ranks with the signing of former Pittsburgh Steelers David Johnson. With the departure of Le'Ron McClain and without a true blocking tight end, the Chargers are thin on point-of-attack run blockers outside of the offensive line. This signing will hopefully add depth to this area.
Johnson did not have much game film to study last season, as he injured his wrist and ended up on IR after Week 6. There were three games Johnson received significant snaps, Week 1 against the Titans, Week 3 against the Bears, and Week 4 against the Vikings, so this is where I focused my film study.
Johnson is a blocking tight end, not a receiving tight end in the mold of Antonio Gates or Jimmy Graham. He does not line out wide at all, almost always in the with line, occasionally as an offset linebacker.
Receiving and Route Running
When asked to run routes (about a third of the time he was on the field for the Steelers), Johnson clearly shows that he does not have much in the way of speed or burst. Also, his routes are not terribly crisp. These combine to make him very easy to keep in check in man coverage. This isn't a terrible surprise given his size, which is closer to that of a fullback than a receiver. At 260 pounds, he is the largest guy on the Chargers offensive roster outside of the offensive line.
Johnson does have some good qualities in the passing game, though. He has good hands, and secures catches very well. He only had one official drop among the games I viewed, and that was Roethlisberger's fault more than Johnson's, as the pass was a laser below his knees.
Johnson is also quite good at finding soft areas in a zone, as shown below. It isn't quite as clear in the GIF as it is running in video, but Johnson runs through the short zones, and slows down as he enters the gap in the zone. This is something he does fairly consistently, and Roesthisberger puts a pass nicely on target to the tight end.
Johnson is by no means a dynamic force in the passing game, but he can contribute on a limited basis, especially against teams who use zone coverages primarily.
Evaluating Johnson's pass blocking turned out to be a frustrating process, as the Steelers did not have him doing it that often (which may or may not be a sign in itself). When Johnson was in the game, it would likely be a running play (about 2/3 of the time) or he would run a route (about 1/3 of the time).
As a run blocker, Johnson showed himself to be extremely capable, especially in the games against the Titans and the Vikings. Against the Bears, Johnson was a disaster blocking, with plays often falling apart where he was supposed to be.
The first play below is against the Bears. Chicago defensive end Corey Wootton easily slips past Johnson and helps take down the runner for a 2 yard loss. Granted, the blocking at the point of attack was just about as bad, but this was fairly typical for Johnson that day. Johnson appeared tentative to engage defenders, and would get beaten inside play after play.
This wasn't Johnson's most impressive block of the day, but it is a good example of the improvement he showed keeping the defender away from the play. In the end, I'm more inclined to believe that Johnson's good days were indicative of his level of play than his one lousy day.
Johnson is not an every-down player, and he certainly shouldn't be with Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green in the lineup. David Johnson does bring something to the table that the Chargers didn't have on their roster: a highly effective run-blocker. While the Steelers didn't have Johnson pass-block, they may have had the right idea on how to use him. Bring him in primarily on running plays, but have him run enough routes to keep the defense honest.
Johnson's impact in the receiving game is nothing to get excited over, but if the quarterback gets the ball to him, he will catch it.
Johnson can be an asset to the team if utilized properly. He should only see the field for about 10-20% of the team's offensive snaps, as he provides less versatility to what the offense can do while he is in the game. However, what he can do, he does effectively. He will be an asset to the run game as an in-line blocker.