MANKATO, Minn. –Tom Johnson has found his groove in Minnesota.
Since signing with the Colts as a rookie free agent in 2006, Johnson spent time in the NFL, NFL Europa, Arena Football League and Canadian Football League before joining the Vikings in 2014. It's been a good move for all involved.
"I'm just out here working as hard as I can," Johnson said following Thursday's training camp walk-through.
In his first two seasons with the Vikings, Johnson totaled 12 sacks, 18 tackles for loss and 79 tackles by coaches' tally.
"I think this is a good system for him – he's kind of a slithery guy," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said. "Tom is a very good worker; he does a lot of stuff that people don't see. He's a tough guy, and he has some quickness and acceleration in the pass rush. He uses his hands well."
When asked if he's been called "slithery" before, Johnson laughed.
"It's good when the head coach gives you a compliment," he said. "I use my quickness to my advantage, and [Zimmer's] defensive scheme is one of those things that allows me to do so.
"Everybody on our D-line brings something different to the table, so it usually opens it up for different people's abilities to be able to … hit a guard with me, Sharrif and Linval, you know, three different styles of play, so it opens things up for us."
Johnson echoed Zimmer's sentiments that the Vikings defense is a good fit for him. Under the direction of both Zimmer and defensive line coach Andre Patterson, the tackle has found a rhythm and found success.
Johnson said Patterson was able to focus on the things he did well and work to further develop them while also helping him make tweaks here and there.
"We work on things – the hand or the toe turn or focusing on the outside shoulder or the hand placement, things of that nature," Johnson said. "Making small adjustments that make bigger differences."
Patterson said he's been impressed with Johnson the past two seasons, and that feeling has continued through training camp this year. He wanted to see Johnson become a better technician, and he's seen exactly that from the lineman.
"You hear [Everson Griffen] say, 'We have to be experts at our craft,' and that's what I started selling to them from day one," Patterson said. "When we first got Tom, he was just about getting off the ball quick and trying to use his quickness, and the thing he's bought into is becoming better with his hands, understanding where his hips have to be to stress the offensive guard out on his rush."
Patterson gets to know each of his players and invests in them individually. He said he teaches Griffen things differently than he teaches Danielle Hunter, and he teaches Linval Joseph things differently than he teaches Shamar Stephen.
"My job is to find out what their skill set is and then try to maximize it," said Patterson.
Johnson said Patterson puts the defensive linemen in a position "to win every snap" and that he trusts his instruction. Specifically since arriving in Minnesota, Johnson said Patterson has helped him develop his speed and hand placement. While Johnson always prided himself on being quick laterally and beating opponents on the edge, Patterson helped him broaden those skills.
For Johnson, it's a matter of perfecting the details and putting everything together.
"I go at a certain angle to make the guard either go left or right, and they come back up, and then the counter move off of it," Johnson said. "Coach 'Dre has really adjusted those things and let me now individually what I was doing wrong."
Beyond learning from his position coach, Johnson absorbs all he can from his compatriots on the line. Whether it's Griffen's quick first step off the line, Brian Robison's preciseness, Joseph's strength technique or Sharrif Floyd's power and quickness, he tries to glean tips and add them to his arsenal.
"We build off each other and play off each other," Johnson said. "You try to learn as much as you can, you try to incorporate as much good stuff as you can out of everybody that you see, and hopefully a good product can come from it."
The Vikings certainly put a good defensive product on the field in 2015. Minnesota ranked fifth overall for points allowed (18.9) and 13th for yards per game (344.2) while also limiting opponents to a 34 percent third-down completion rate.
Johnson received eight starting nods in the 2015 season. While he acknowledged it's the goal of every NFL player to be a full-time starter, he also said that it's not his main focus.
"Starting is only one series, compared to the rotation we have going on," said Johnson, who might receive more or fewer snaps than a teammate on any given day. "It's all about winning.
"Everybody wants to contribute," Johnson continued. "Everybody wants to do what they need to do to make as many plays as possible, and at the end of a day, we come out with a 'W.' "
Patterson tells his entire unit that he puts more emphasis on who finishes the game than who starts it.
View images from the Friday, August 5 practice at Verizon Vikings Training Camp.
"Whoever is hot at the end of the game, that's who I'm rolling with," Patterson said. "The most important thing is to worry about doing your job when you get out there. The four guys that are playing the best at the end of the game are the guys that I'm going to have out there."
One way Johnson regularly found success in 2015 was in the Vikings nickel rush unit. He said the group works well because Zimmer's scheme allows each player to use his athleticism.
"You're not a robot – you don't have to run into guys or hold guys," Johnson said. "So on each and every snap, each of [us] has a chance to make a big play or contribute to making that play. It's fast, too. There's no one on there that's a slow guy, on the package that moves laterally or moves vertically. It's a combination of things, but overall we're just athletic."
Whether Johnson is used as a starter, a rotational player or on special packages in 2016, his biggest focus is continuing to develop his skill set and help the Vikings in whichever role he's asked to play.
"I've earned my stripes here," Johnson said. "I think that every coach here is confident in my ability to put me into a situation and [know] that I'll have success."