Mike Johnson believed he had his best season with the Falcons in 2012 and is working this offseason to secure one of the open positions along the team’s retooled offensive line.
Entering his fourth season with the team, Johnson saw time last season at every line spot except center, even playing the jumbo tight end for stretches.
“Just getting in game situations was big last year,” Johnson said. “I got a few game situations in last year at guard, tight end and tackle. It’s only beneficial going forward.”
The coaching staff noticed Johnson’s growth last season. Offensive line coach Paul Dunn says Johnson’s maturation in 2012 will be instrumental in his development.
“He’s springboarded off of that with this new opportunity to compete at the right tackle position,” Dunn said. “He’s in a lot better shape than he’s ever been in. You can tell from him just walking down the hallway that he’s a lot more prepared for the position he’s in.
“A lot of guys coming out of the collegiate level just don’t know how competitive it really is at the professional level. Mike has really grasped that feeling, and he’s ready to push on and have a very good year.”
Johnson, who played both tackle and guard in college, is locked in a battle at right tackle with Lamar Holmes and is competing at right guard with starter Garrett Reynolds.
A four-year starter at Alabama, Johnson is expected to see most of his reps at right tackle, where he lined up with the starters during OTAs on Wednesday.
After missing opportunities to fill positions early in his career because of injuries, Johnson said he’s in the best shape of his life.
“It’s something I’ve looked forward to,” Johnson said. “This is my fourth year coming up, and I’ve competed since I’ve been here, but I feel more prepared now than ever to move into (a starting) role.”
Like most offensive lineman, Johnson is being cross-trained to play guard and tackle. Teams generally carry no more than eight offensive linemen on their game-day rosters, making a player who can effectively play both a valuable asset.
“You’re not in a box when you’re playing the tackle position,” coach Mike Smith said. “Mike has been cross-trained since he’s been here to play guard and tackle. You’re going to face different types of players for the most part. There are more greyhound rush teams that will put defensive ends (inside) to get a mismatch. You do have more help when you’re inside.”
Johnson is back to his collegiate playing weight of 304 pounds after getting down to the 280s last season. He’s putting in extra time with new strength-and-conditioning coach A.J. Neibel to remain at a competitive weight. Johnson is working on his footwork and technique to combat the speed of pass rushers on the edge.
“The quickness of the people you’re going against is the biggest difference from guard to tackle. You have to keep leverage,” Johnson said. “A lot of times, those guys on the inside are good athletes, but they’re in a small space. But when you get out on the edge, you have to use space and leverage to your advantage.”
With center Todd McClure retiring and right tackle Tyson Clabo gone after being cut, the Falcons lost years of veteran leadership in their offensive-line meeting room. Johnson acknowledged he isn’t a vocal leader at this stage of his career and said it has been a collective effort for the team to replace McClure and Clabo.
“It’s one of those things that you have to come out and adjust to each day,” Johnson said. “Honestly, I just keep my head down and nose to the grind and do what I can to help the team. Maybe one of these days I’ll be more vocal, but right now I’m just doing my best to block the guy in front of me.”