Charles Johnson leapt into the TCF Bank Stadium stands after a preseason touchdown before slowly working his way back to the Vikings sideline. After an array of fist-pumps and high-fives, Johnson located the cornerbacks.
Johnson had been grabbed and held by an Oakland Raiders defender on the 10-yard touchdown catch, something he said he got plenty of in practice against teammates.
“After I made the play, I went over and told those guys ‘thank you’ because they hold us so much in practice,” Johnson said. “We complain so much, but you never know when that’ll come up in the game when guys are holding me and jerking me. I still got to make the play like it’s routine.”
It’s a facet of his game that often can be overlooked due to his frame. Johnson, 6-2 and 218 pounds, possesses the physicality and size the Vikings generally lack at wide receiver, and he’ll finally get his shot to display his ability in a significant role this season.
Johnson ran a fade route from the slot while lined up against Raiders cornerback D.J. Hayden in the second quarter of the Vikings’ second preseason game. Johnson gained separation from his release as quarterback Teddy Bridgewater threw the ball, but Hayden was grabbing Johnson’s jersey.
As the ball arrived, Johnson absorbed contact and made the catch with his outstretched hands.
Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner said Johnson’s physical play is underrated.
“He is a lean guy, and he doesn’t look as big as he is,” Turner said. “I know some people have described him as not being a physical guy going to the ball, but I think he does that and I think he’s done it better in this camp than he did a year ago.”
Johnson had a breakout year in 2014 after the Vikings plucked him from Cleveland’s practice squad in September. He played in 11 games and caught 31 passes, third on the team, for 475 yards and two touchdowns.
And he finally had an offseason in which he didn’t spend the summer rehabbing an injury. The Packers’ seventh-round draft pick in 2013 dealt with knee injuries in his first two offseasons, but he was fully healthy this spring and summer for the first time in his career. It enabled Johnson to work on improving his body, for once.
And then there are the Vikings cornerbacks that Johnson said notoriously will grab and hold throughout practice. Johnson said Xavier Rhodes is the worst offender at Winter Park given his aggressive style of play, to the point where Johnson and Rhodes have jawed at each other a few times after plays.
“We’re physical corners here, and we like to put our hands to our guys,” Rhodes said. “We use that to our advantage. Once we get a chance to do it, we do it. If that helps our receivers against other opponents, then we’re going to continue to do it. That’s our game.”
Along with Johnson’s physicality, he has reliable hands. He makes an effort to avoid catching the ball with his body, and Johnson spends time after practice catching at least 100 passes off the JUGS machine. On the preseason touchdown catch, Johnson made a reception that would be uncatchable for other receivers. He has long arms to give him an impressive catch radius.
“He’s made a number of catches out here that when the ball is thrown you think there is no way he can get to it, and he reaches out and gets it one-handed or gets two hands on it,” Turner said.
Mike Wallace will get the majority of the attention at wide receiver, as some view the former Pro Bowl selection as a No. 1 receiver, but Johnson developed a good rapport with Bridgewater at the end of last season and during training camp. He won’t snag the headlines like Wallace, but Johnson hopes opposing teams underestimate him this year.
“If they’re sleeping then I’m awake, and I’m going to make the plays,” Johnson said. “I know what I can do. I think the coaches and players on this team know what I can do.”