Bears area scout John Syty took the podium at Halas Hall in April and delivered an impassioned opening monologue about a player the Bears selected in the fourth round. His voice broke a bit, but the conviction never wavered. The message was clear.
“He’s someone we really feel compelled can become a pillar of this organization for a really long time,” Syty said. “I feel really strongly about this guy. I’m excited for you guys to meet him. There’s a level of it factor to this kid the second he walks into the room that all you guys are going to feel. I’m a little bit emotional about this kid.
“I have a feeling this guy is going to be with us for a really long time.”
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“This guy” is Texas running back Roschon Johnson. You don’t typically hear that kind of praise for a player who plays a non-premium position, especially one selected on Day 3 of the draft.
But the Bears were drawn to Johnson throughout the pre-draft process. The tape is good, but Johnson’s foundation – his unshakeable drive for daily progress and magnetic leadership – has the Bears penciling the former four-star quarterback in as a core piece of this rebuild.
It’s fair to be skeptical of that belief. Perennial contenders in today’s NFL are built around the quarterback, tackles, wide receivers, cornerbacks, and pass rushers. Everything else is seen as supplemental.
The Tennessee Titans have had one of the best running back in football for the past handful of seasons, but Derrick Henry has only been enough to get them to one AFC Championship Game. The San Francisco 49ers only added Christian McCaffrey once the rest of their team, one stocked with blue-chip talent across the board, was constructed. He was a final toy for head coach Kyle Shanahan, but not a missing link.
Running backs are rarely part of the fabric of modern Super Bowl-winning teams.
But Johnson, more specifically, what he’s made of, is what the Bears need at this early rebuild stage. They need on-field talent. Johnson has that in spades, or else the Bears wouldn’t have included him in the running back competition the second he arrived.
But they also need high-character guys who can help secure the ground floor of general manager Ryan Poles’ vision alongside quarterback Justin Fields, wide receiver DJ Moore, linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, safeties Jaquan Brisker and Eddie Jackson, and right tackle Darnell Wright.
Spend time with Johnson, and you will understand what the Bears believe he’ll bring to them both in the huddle and the locker room. He’s a guy who understands that the little pieces, the day-by-day hammering of the stone, will eventually create the bigger vision. The ends can’t be reached without ample work. That goes for the Bears as a team and Johnson as an individual.
“I think it’s not necessarily proving to anybody, but it’s proving to myself like who I am,” Johnson told NBC Sports Chicago on the latest Under Center Podcast about his mentality entering the running back competition. “I think the moment you start trying to prove to people what you can do, I think the moment it doesn’t go right then you kind of get in your head a little bit. I try my best to keep a certain perspective that whatever happens, I’m going to put my best foot forward and I’m going to go hard, and ultimately, you’re going to see what type of dude I am in that process. I think it’s really just taking it day by day, taking advantage of my opportunities when they present themselves and just trying to be prepared as much as I can when my opportunity comes.”
Johnson isn’t wired like a typical running back who has spent years scanning for holes and punishing linebackers. He didn’t arrive at his positional destination until he went to college. Johnson grew up as a four-star quarterback in Port Arthur, Texas. That gives him a unique perspective in dissecting defenses as a back and an understanding of how to get everyone pulling in the same direction even when the chips are down.
“Ultimately, from a character standpoint, I feel like you’re going to get a leader at the position who has played quarterback,” Johnson told NBC Sports Chicago. “So, it’s kind of like that element of leadership that comes from a quarterback but at the running back spot that you normally don’t get from other guys.
“Running backs aren’t necessarily trained to look at defenses like that,” Johnson later said of how his quarterback training makes him a better runner. “It’s like OK, you look at what front you got, where the linebackers are and you can kind of get pigeonholed if you’re not used to looking at safeties and kind of just the big picture. I still look at defenses like that. Of course, the first thing I’m doing is keying the safeties, seeing where the rotation is coming form so I can get a beat on pressure and get a beat on linebacker alignments as well as the defensive front. Just kind of having that same mindset of reading the defense from top to bottom I think helps me diagnose things better to put myself in the best position.”
Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus believe Johnson will eventually become a rock of their vision for the Bears. Johnson earned that belief through how he handled the adversity at Texas – adversity that has shaped him into a leader the Bears need as they start their upward climb.
But Johnson knows he can’t walk in and become a leader overnight. Respect, like playing time, is earned. That’s his first goal as he enters his rookie season.
“When you go to college, you find out a lot about yourself,” Johnson told NBC Sports Chicago when asked how he became the type of leader the Bears have raved about. “The situations that I’ve been put in at Texas, either I deal with it in a positive way, or I could deal with my situations in a negative way. I try my best to, no matter what situation or opportunity is presented against me. I’m looking to put my best foot forward on the field or off the field and make the most of it.
“In my time in Chicago, I can take what I’ve learned from that – ultimately being a rookie, I have to sit back and learn and see how things are done. Kind of earn my stripes, and then step-by-step into more of a leadership role. That’s kind of what I’m doing now.”
That vision goes hand-in-hand with the one the Bears conjured up when they selected Johnson in April. Now, that work begins.