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Juwan Johnson’s shift to tight end could be exactly what he needs

It’s hard to stand out in crowded rooms, Johnson may do himself a favor with a shift to tight end

NFL: DEC 13 Saints at Eagles Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Earlier this week, Nick Underhill of published a piece discussing New Orleans Saints wide receiver Juwan Johnson. Reportedly, Johnson has been preparing for a possible shift to tight end. Thursday evening, Johnson may have confirmed the position change on his social media accounts.

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound wideout joined the New Orleans Saints as an undrafted rookie ahead of the 2020 season. At the time of his signing, some considered that a shift to the tight end role might be best for him. He ended up making the practice squad as a receiver, and played over 180 offensive snaps last year in a season marred with complications at the position.

According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson’s usage was somewhat tight end-like. Though he lined up out wide 174 times, he played more run blocking snaps (99) than routes run (83). Johnson graded as an excellent perimeter run blocking over the season, finishing with an 88.7 grade and committing only one penalty.

He’s been a great blocker since college.

While the former Oregon and Penn State product showed great proficiency in the blocking game, including a couple solid performances in pass blocking, his receiving ability continues to evoke questions.

In college, Johnson was not noted for being a great contested pass catcher despite his size. Particularly on the perimeter. Last season with the Saints, Johnson received four contested targets, catching only one. Across all ten receiving opportunities, he reeled in only 4 passes and a passer rating of 57.2 when targeted. He also only hauled in 33% of contested catches his final season in college. Did he make some of those catches over the course of his career? Absolutely. But not with the consistency that separates someone in a challenging area of the game.

With an inconsistent track record as a pass catcher (albeit throughout a very tough season for rookies) perhaps a shift to tight end would play better into his strengths as a blocker and hard-nosed player. This could also allow Johnson to receive targets closer to the line of scrimmage. The question will then shift to his short-area quickness and ability to run the tight end route tree.

The Saints, and Saints fans this season, put a ton of emphasis on athleticism, some of which can be measured by the Relative Athletic Score metric developed by Kent Lee Plot. With the ability to look at Johnson’s combine numbers from 2020 in comparison to not only wide receivers but also against tight ends, there’s a clear benefit for him at the position.

At receiver, Johnson scores 6.52 in overall grade. The overall grade is comprise of composite scores for size, explosion, agility, and speed. In those areas, he scored elite in the size category, okay in explosion and agility, and poor in speed (4.58 40 time).

However, as a tight end Johnson scores an overall of 7.79 including “good” in explosion and agility (which includes an elite 3-cone time for the position), an elite speed grading, and a poor measure when it comes to size, though size is mostly affected by his weight, which can be addressed (unlike height, where Johnson is already 6’4). The specification around the 3-cone timing is in reference to the questions about short-area quickness. This score suggests he has the natural tools to make the quick cuts necessary to run tighter routes with sudden changes in direction.

Perhaps it’s presumptive before actually seeing him take the field at the position, but if this change does come to fruition, it looks like there’s a chance it will put Juwan Johnson in a good spot to demonstrate what he does best. The move also separates him from a crowded wide receiver room, giving him the chance to stand out a bit more. Former New Orleans Saint Dan Arnold made this same adjustment and now he’s caught on with a couple of teams as a contributing (and starting) tight end. Can Juwan Johnson find similar success?

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