There are a couple of things that immediately jump out when watching film of Steelers rookie ILB Devodrick "Buddy" Johnson during his collegiate career at Texas A&M. First off, Johnson provided admirable leadership for the Aggies defense by setting the physicality tone for his often overmatched unit in the SEC. The Aggies defense was much stronger as a unit than the sum of their parts would seem to suggest possible. His performances could best be described as controlled aggression. Similar to his now Steelers teammate Alex Highsmith, Johnson earned respect from the opposition by giving his all until the final whistle.
The second thing that stands out when watching Johnson is how fundamentally sound of a tackler he is. I know what you are thinking. Aren't all NFL defenders supposed to be technically proficient tacklers? If only that were true. Every level of football has made an concerted effort to reduce unnecessary collisions and impacts, particularly to the head due to the long-term effects of concussions. Therefore practice times have been limited and some drills intended to teach tackling fundamentals are utilized far less often, if at all.
Like a lot of things in life, efficient tackling is a mindset. Buddy Johnson has that mindset, and the attention to detail necessary to make it habitual. He is both aggressive and controlled navigating the congestion while locating the ball carrier, on balance with his head up prior to impact, then wrapping up beautifully while driving through the tackle. I mentioned the beauty of his technique because it is just that for any old school football fan.
Steelers Nation has been spoiled for decades to witness some of the best tacklers ever to patrol the middle of the field playing inside linebacker. James Farrior was textbook in his approach, but Jack Lambert was the undeniable standard by which all others must be judged. Simply put, Lambert was the best tackler these eyes have ever witnessed. Ravens HOF great Ray Lewis would have to be next on the list. Without rehashing every attribute necessary to earn a spot on this particular list, I would suggest watching some Lambert highlights on YouTube for those among us not quite old enough to have witnessed his exploits firsthand.
Vince Williams and Devin Bush manned the interior linebacker positions at the start of last season. Williams as the larger and more powerful Buck, more the classic run stopper. Bush as the faster and more athletic pursuit Mack. Robert Spillane stepped up after Bush's season ending knee injury, proving to be a bit of a tweener. Not quite powerful enough to be a full time Buck, but not quite swift enough to be an ideal Mack. He definitely proved too good to keep off the field when healthy and is entrenched as a part of the rotation. Behind those three proven performers the field is wide open for Buddy Johnson to earn his roster spot.
There will always be a place on NFL rosters for a player with Johnson's tackling prowess. Vince Williams is a leader on the Steelers defense who sets the tone for the unit on game day, but he is nearing the end of the road. Johnson has many of the same leadership qualities displayed by Williams. He also has the same old school physicality and mentality that has a way of endearing oneself with their teammates and fanbase. Johnson is high intensity on the field, high character off the field.
While Williams and Johnson share plenty of similarities, Buddy definitely has the advantage athletically. His forty times ranged from 4.5 to 4.57 according to reports from his pro day, and his explosion numbers were excellent. His jacked up physique is a byproduct of his discipline in the weight room. Johnson has the presence and demeanor of an alpha, a trait obviously coveted by the Steelers in their draft class this year.
Barring injury, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where Johnson doesn't earn a roster spot right out of training camp. He has every ability and attribute that the Steelers demand from their linebackers. There are bound to be challenges, but I have no doubt that Johnson will be more than ready to tackle each one head on with eyes up.