Jaleel Johnson is always on the move.
The “Dancing Bear,” as Johnson was affectionately known inside the University of Iowa’s football locker room and his fraternity, has halted the groove as much as possible. Johnson, the Vikings’ second-year defensive tackle, only seldomly slapped his hands together, shook his shoulders and kicked higher than any 6-foot-3, 295-pound man should during his rookie NFL season.
“Try to hold it back,” Johnson said. “Being around all the older guys, it’s straight business. Once those guys lighten up, might as well start dancing and have fun.”
However, Johnson didn’t weigh 295 pounds last year. He was closer to 280, far too thin for the type of dual-threat defensive tackle the Vikings envisioned when drafting him in the fourth round (109th overall) last year.
Now at the “optimum” body weight, Johnson is positioned to play a key role on the Vikings defensive line as much-needed relief off the bench for starters Linval Joseph and Sheldon Richardson. The Vikings want a more robust defensive line rotation. The candidates are young, unproven and start with Johnson.
“When you look at him, he looks a little broader,” defensive line coach Andre Patterson said. “But he still looks the same. But when he gets on the scale, it says 295. That’s the way you want it to be.”
Grilled chicken, spinach and barbells dominated Johnson’s winter and spring. That’s the “good weight” Patterson and the Vikings’ strength and conditioning staff wanted him to add.
The issue started during his NFL draft process. Johnson weighed in at 316 pounds during the NFL combine, about 20 pounds over what the Vikings wanted. The rookie then took the weight loss too far entering his first camp last summer, leaving him with an undesirable build to fight for a job.
So the Vikings essentially redshirted Johnson. He saw only 41 snaps while suiting up for five games.
“I just think he made a mistake,” Patterson said. “He got too big. Then he dropped the weight. I think in his mind he thought, ‘I’m trying to get in the best shape.’ I don’t think it was a conscious effort to be 280 or something.”
Johnson still brings the impressive pedigree that attracted NFL teams. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native’s wrestling background, disruptive play for the Hawkeyes and nimble hands and feet brought him to Minnesota. His 10 tackles for a loss and 7 ½ sacks led the Hawkeyes in 2016, including a team-high nine combined tackles in Iowa’s memorable upset of No. 2 Michigan that fall.
But the NFL’s level of play requires college boys to quickly become men. Most, if not all, of Johnson’s added weight is lean muscle. Even though he’s 20 pounds lighter than at the NFL combine, Johnson said he would crush the 21 reps of 225 pounds he had benched in Indianapolis.
“A lot stronger,” Johnson said. “You put me on the bench, I don’t want to sound cocky or anything, but if you put me on the bench right now — way more than 21.”
That’s what nose tackle demands.
Just ask Joseph, the human wrecking ball. Johnson has been lining up as Joseph’s backup during training camp, where he can earn snaps at both nose and undertackle should he play well this month. Defensive tackles Ifeadi Odenigbo, Jalyn Holmes and David Parry are also vying for roster spots.
“He’s improved a lot,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “I think one of the biggest things is he was a wrestler, so he wanted to get into wrestling matches with guys as opposed to locking him out and playing the gap he’s supposed to be in.”
The Vikings hope Johnson has plenty of reasons to dance this season — after making plays.
“I thought with big guys there was a height and weight limit,” defensive end Tashawn Bower said. “He shouldn’t be moving that way, but he has fun with it.”