The New Orleans Saints opened up OTA sessions to the general public and one thing became readily apparent rather quickly—rookie linebacker Rufus Johnson out of Tarleton State has some serious potential.
Not much was expected of Johnson, a sixth round pick out of such a small school. Not only is he facing an uphill battle in terms of simply adjusting to the NFL, he’s also attempting to play a new position after he spent the duration of his college career with his hand in the dirt as a defensive end.
According to NOLA.com’s Mike Triplett, Johnson caught his eye as well as many others with his performance in the practice open to the public:
One guy who passed the “eyeball test” for me Tuesday was rookie outside linebacker Rufus Johnson. He’s a long, lean pass rusher, listed at 6 feet 5, 272 pounds. He looks fluid and athletic, and he reached up to bat down a pass by rookie quarterback Ryan Griffin at one point. Obviously the rookie from Tarleton State will face a steep learning curve in his first NFL season, especially since he’s changing positions from defensive end in college. But he’s got a good athletic makeup to start with.
It’s important to note that these are simply practice sessions in shorts where contact is prohibited. That being said, the fact a sixth-round selection was standing out to most in attendance with the entire team participating should raise some eyebrows.
There’s a bit of a logjam at the linebacker position in a new 3-4 scheme. Will Smith, Victor Butler, Martez Wilson, Junior Galette, Chase Thomas and more are all attempting to make the roster and contribute at the outside linebacker position.
Add Johnson to that list now as well.
Immediately after the draft it was assumed Johnson would be a practice squad candidate as new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan attempted to sift through the remaining 4-3 talent. Given development time on the practice squad, Johnson could have made the roster the following year.
Johnson could still land on the practice squad, but the fact he is showing flashes of ability this early in the preseason is nothing but a good thing. If he allows this solid performance to snowball the Saints may have found themselves a diamond in the rough.