There is no getting around it – the Los Angeles Chargers have a need at tight end. With Hunter Henry out for the season and blocking tight end Virgil Green sitting atop the depth chart, it could be argued the team needs to identify as many as three tight ends worth of roster spots between now and the beginning of September.
As it happens, they have five relatively unknown, inexperienced tight ends set to compete for those spots over the next three months. That group includes the likes of Sean Culkin, Braedon Bowman, Ben Johnson, Cole Hunt, and Austin Roberts. While Bowman and Culkin probably have a slight edge thanks to their familiarity with the offense, I’d put my money on former Kansas Jayhawk Ben Jonson making the final 53.
As you might expect, the 6’4”, 245-pound tight end wasn’t exactly a statistical standout at Kansas. While he did have a strong senior year in spite of a run-heavy scheme and poor quarterback play (31, 363, 1 TD), the 61 receptions, 670 yards and two touchdowns Johnson amassed in 44 career games hardly jump off the page. But, as is generally the case, his statistics don’t tell the full story.
Simply put: Ben Johnson is fun to watch on tape.
One of the first things to stands out about Ben Johnson is his role as a core special teams player throughout his tenure at Kansas. He served as a special teams standout from the beginning of his redshirt freshman season until he graduated, providing value as a blocker on field goal and PAT teams while also working on coverage teams. Considering Anthony Lynn made his living as a special teams player, I’m sure the value Johnson offers in that phase of the game is not lost on the Chargers second year head coach.
As you might expect from a tight end playing in a run-heavy scheme, Ben is also a relatively polished blocker. He’s agile, exhibits solid technique and the desired demeanor, operates well in space, and does a good job of identifying and adjusting to changing blocking assignments. While he certainly needs to add some strength, and I’m sure the coaches will want him to refine his technique, he looks like he has a chance to contribute right away both in the run game and in pass protection.
Ben is clearly very aware as a receiver, understands how to find open spaces in the defense, knows when to sit down or extend his route, and always presents a big target for his quarterback. While I think he would benefit from continued work on his route running and extending his route tree, he’s more developed as a receiver than you might expect.
Based upon the athleticism and well-rounded game he displayed on his college tape, Ben probably should have been drafted somewhere in rounds 5-7. He’s a better athlete than basically every tight end selected after Chris Herndon (pick 103) and a strong argument could be made that he’s already a better football player than Mark Andrews (pick 86) and offers considerably more upside as a blocker and a receiver. In other words, I think the Chargers essentially stole Ben as an undrafted free agent.
Frankly, I don’t think the question is whether or not Ben Johnson will make the roster. I believe he will. I think the real question is whether or not he’ll open the regular season as the TE2 on the depth chart. He’s already the most well-rounded (healthy) tight end on the roster and with minicamp set to begin on June 12, it shouldn’t take long for Anthony Lynn, to fall in love with Johnson’ ability to do the little things. He should only continue to gain momentum as we get into training camp and the preseason.
As an undrafted free agent, Ben obviously isn’t ready to step in and seamlessly replace Hunter Henry snap-for-snap or catch-for-catch, but that’s to be expected. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of contributing right away. He should play a key role on special teams right away, isn’t a liability as a blocker, and should help extend defenses in the middle of the field while playing 15-20 offensive snaps per game.
Like I said, the Los Angeles Chargers stole Ben Johnson. And, if you can’t already tell, I look forward to watching him closely this offseason. Do you have thoughts on Ben Johnson? If so, share them in the comments section below…