Jaleel Johnson is not the only former high school wrestler and Iowa Hawkeyes football standout to join the Vikings this offseason.
Johnson, the Vikings' top pick during the NFL draft's final day Saturday, never played with tackle Riley Reiff at Iowa, but both were targeted recruits by the Hawkeyes, in part, because they were standout wrestlers in high school. The Vikings saw that balance and power on film before drafting Johnson, a defensive lineman, with the 109th overall pick in the fourth round.
"We've had great success historically [with ex-wrestlers]," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "I go back to my time as an assistant coach here in the '80s. It's a big part of the culture in the Midwest and certainly in Iowa it's a big thing. Typically, my experience is guys who are extraordinary wrestlers, they may not be great football players, but they certainly aren't going to be bad ones."
The Vikings hope Johnson, a 6-3, 316-pound defensive tackle, falls in that range from "not bad" to "great" as an NFL player.
General Manager Rick Spielman, scouts and the coaching staff zeroed in on Johnson as a mid-round target. Spielman described Johnson's Senior Bowl performance as "outstanding," prompting the Vikings to get extra time with Johnson at the NFL combine. Defensive line coach Andre Patterson kept in touch with Johnson via FaceTime while he was working out in Iowa City this spring.
Jamaal Stephenson, the team's director of college scouting, visited Iowa's campus last year and came away impressed with Johnson's skill set, some of which can be attributed to his wrestling background.
"Immediately in my mind, I think this guy has incredible toughness and balance, especially for offensive line and defensive line," Stephenson said. "That is a critical aspect or attribute that you want to have.
"He's a big man. He's strong. He's athletic. We feel that he has value. He will fit well in that D-line room."
Johnson, 22, is a Brooklyn native, but when he was a teenager his parents sent him to live with an aunt in a suburb of Chicago. Johnson initially played football at St. Joseph's High School, where he was a 285-pound heavyweight wrestler as a junior. His last wrestling campaign ended with a 21-3 record before he transferred to Montini Catholic High School in Lombard, Ill., to pursue a better football program.
In 2011, Montini won the state title with Johnson anchoring the middle of the defense. His bulky frame still balanced as if he were on the wrestling mat.
"What it taught me, really, was where to place your hands as far as whether you should be inside or outside, pad level," Johnson said Saturday. "It really taught me good leverage as far as getting a good bend in the hips. So, I feel like what I did in wrestling, I feel like that correlated a lot with the game of football."
Spielman made seven trades during this draft, but he didn't feel confident Johnson still would be there if he backed away from the second pick Saturday.
"We had a lot of activity [with the 109th pick]," Spielman said. "We felt very strongly those big defensive linemen were going to go early, and we felt what we'd seen at Iowa, his flexibility to play nose tackle and under tackle. … We felt he gives us some flexibility and some pass-rush ability in line."
The Vikings needed to add Johnson if only to add to the roster beyond 2017. Nose tackle Linval Joseph is the only experienced interior defender under contract after this season with Sharrif Floyd, Tom Johnson, Shamar Stephen and Datone Jones all entering contract years.
Zimmer sees Johnson's role as flexible between playing nose behind Joseph and the defensive tackle spot occupied by either Tom Johnson, Jones or Floyd, should he successfully recover from nerve damage suffered during surgery in September.
"He'll probably be a swing guy," Zimmer said of Johnson. "He's more of a power rusher than he is a speed, quick kind of rusher.
''He's very explosive coming out of his hips, very strong at the point of attack."
Johnson, who led the Hawkeyes with 10 tackles for a loss and 7 ½ sacks last season, said he's seen the damage done by the Vikings defensive line. He's eager to be part of the noise.
"I'm overexcited. I can't put it into words," Johnson said. "[The Vikings] have a veteran defensive line. … I'm ready to add to it and show you guys what I can really do."