Bull-rushing blockers, shoving aside interference on his path to the backfield, Texans defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson embraces the grittier aspects of his job.
Johnson is well-prepared for the roughneck work in the trenches and accustomed to adapting to change.
Johnson grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., before his parents sent him to live with an aunt in Chicago for better educational and sports opportunities.
Johnson thrived as a football player and heavyweight wrestler in the Midwest, emerging as a blue-chip recruit, all-state selection, team captain and state champion at Montini Catholic, earning a scholarship to Iowa.
Playing in a hard-nosed Iowa program overseen by Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz, Johnson learned discipline and technique. He became an All-Big Ten selection who was drafted in the fourth round by the Minnesota Vikings.
“Absolutely, the biggest thing coach Ferentz really emphasizes is being detailed, being disciplined and being consistent,” Johnson said. “My defensive line coach in college, Reese Morgan, used to say, ‘You’ve never arrived.’ No matter what it is, it’s about being consistent. The only time you stop working is when you retire and I think I’m far from that right now.”
Johnson joined the Texans this offseason on a one-year, $1.3 million contract that included $400,000 guaranteed with a $100,000 signing bonus, a $300,000 base salary guarantee of his $1 million base salary and up to $200,000 in per-game active roster bonuses ($11,764 per game) along with playtime incentive clauses that could net him another $600,000.
Johnson, sporting a blue Metallica shirt during a recent workout with private defensive line coach Brandon Jordan, is getting to know his new teammates.
“It feels great to be able to get a little bit of work in here with my fellow teammates,” Johnson said. “It’s always a good time. It means a lot. Being able to build camaraderie with these guys going into the season I think that pays dividends for us being on the same page during the early part of the year. I think that will help us down the line.”
Johnson is coming off his most productive season. He started every game last season for the first time in his career and recorded a career-high 44 tackles as the replacement for Michael Pierce when he opted out of the season due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Two seasons ago, Johnson had a career-high 3 ½ sacks and five tackles for losses.
Johnson, who has 87 career tackles and five sacks, is eager to make an impact on a revamped defensive line tasked with replacing J.J. Watt and upgrading a porous run defense.
“It’s a brand-new team and that’s what makes it fun,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of guys coming from different programs and different teams. I’m looking forward to performing. I’m very excited. I’m a team player. I’m going to help this team go as far as it possibly can. I’m ready to work.”
Johnson has been playing in a 4-3 defense, the trademark of Texans defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, since high school.
“I’m used to being in a 4-3 scheme, so it’s nothing new for me,” Johnson said. “It’s just a matter of going out and doing what I’m capable of doing. Just being a really good teammate and helping this team win, that’s what I’m about.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.