By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
The Morning Kickoff …
Player-to-watch alert: Charles Johnson, the receiver the Browns signed off the Green Bay practice squad last October only to discover he had a torn ACL, has been a revelation in the first days of training camp.
Physically imposing (6-2 ½, 215), deceptively fast (4.38 40 time) and surprisingly up to speed on the Kyle Shanahan offense, Johnson could be the receiver that comes out of nowhere to lessen the impact of – if not offset -- the impending suspension of Josh Gordon.
“He’s a guy that we hope can emerge from this as a guy that can help us,” said coach Mike Pettine.
When Johnson walks onto the field wearing No. 80 – he traded No. 11 to Travis Benjamin in the spring – he certainly looks the part of a big-play receiver.
But the intrigue of this player stretches beyond his physical appearance.
Johnson participated fully on the Packers’ practice squad well into October despite recurring pain in his left knee and at least one MRI that revealed a slight tear of the anterior cruciate ligament.
I asked him why he did that.
“It wasn’t a pain I couldn’t get through,” he said. “I’ve got people that depend on me, so I’m out there working. The pain is temporary, but quitting is forever. It was hurting sometimes, but once the ball was snapped I couldn’t feel nothing.”
The $6,000 weekly paycheck Johnson received on the Packers’ practice squad meant everything to him. He had two infant daughters and a third on the way to support, and a father battling multiple illnesses.
A leap of faith: “It was crazy,” Johnson said of his rookie season of 2013. “My first year in the NFL, I was plagued with injuries. But it’s nothing I haven’t been through before. I faced a lot of obstacles in my life. I felt God had placed for me another one.
“My dad’s been real ill. I’ve been suspended from a school. I’ve taken a year off (to tend to his father in Kentucky). I’ve been struggling. Kids at a young age. It’s not always easy, but if you can make it through those times it makes you a stronger person.”
Johnson, of Elsmere, KY, originally committed to Louisville. He didn’t qualify early enough and went to Eastern Kentucky. Early as a true freshman, Johnson was kicked off the team when he wouldn’t rat out his roommate, a close high school friend, on the charge of a stolen laptop computer.
Johnson transferred to a community college in California. The next year, his dad became ill and Johnson quit school to be with him. After a year, he enrolled at Grand Valley State, a Division II school in Allendale, MI. In two seasons, Johnson had 128 receptions for 2,129 yards (16.6 average) and 31 touchdowns.
Not invited to the NFL Combine, Johnson turned some heads at a pro day workout arranged by his agent, posting a 40 time of 4.38 and measuring 39 ½ inches in the vertical jump. Some draftniks had him going as high as the third round; Mel Kiper projected him in the fourth round. The Browns worked him out, but their disjointed personnel department a year ago couldn’t arrive at a consensus on Johnson. The Packers selected him in the seventh round.
“I had a pretty good college career,” Johnson said. “I had good numbers at my pro day. People didn’t know about me, but the Packers are known for drafting and building receivers.”
Making up for lost time: Before the Browns knew of Johnson’s torn ACL, they signed him to a three-year contract. Though they received much derision for not knowing of the injury, they were unfazed and felt the investment was sound.
“I’m glad they kept me around,” Johnson said. “They didn’t have to. They could’ve let me go back on the street, go back to Green Bay, but they kept me around. I’m just going to work as hard as I can to get back to full recovery and go back to being me and being able to contribute.”
Through the months of lonely rehab, Johnson formed a bond with Brian Hoyer, who was rehabbing his own ACL surgery. As they both progressed, Johnson was the receiver most frequently catching Hoyer’s passes in the solitude of the empty Browns’ fieldhouse.
“He’s a hard worker,” Hoyer said. “He has size (and) speed for a big guy. I think he gets in and out of routes really well. The other day, I ran a route with him where he had a double move, and for a big guy, for him to get in and out of the break was impressive.
“I think a lot of people are waiting to see what he’s capable of. He’s very smart, he works really hard and as a quarterback, that’s all that you can ask for -- a guy who’s out there trying to learn and trying to go hard.”
Browns GM Ray Farmer was the assistant GM last year and had a voice in signing Johnson.
“The easy things (to point to) are all the recognizables right away, that he’s 6-2 ½, 215 pounds … he ran a 4.38 40,” Farmer said. “Those are the easy pieces, but when you watch the tape you like his hands. You like the fact that he can run the routes, and right now it’s a young man that put a lot of work to recovering from an ACL injury. You can see that he’s big. He’s still fast and he can run routes and catch the football.
“I’m really excited for him to get his opportunity. Everybody now is getting a chance to see what we thought about Charles Johnson live.”
Johnson is not going to replace Gordon. Even if he makes the final roster, odds are against Johnson being an instant contributor. He has too much ground to make up. But other than Gordon, there isn’t a receiver on the roster with his size and speed. And the motivation to take advantage of them.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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