EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. –It's been more than a decade since Tom Johnson first entered the NFL as a rookie free agent, but the past three seasons in Minnesota have shaped his career the most.
He's raring to go for a fourth.
After bouncing between leagues – Johnson has played in the NFL Europa, Arena Football League and Canadian Football League – and joining the Saints from 2011-13 before coming to rest with the Vikings, Johnson will tell you there's nowhere he'd rather be.
Since 2014 under Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer, Johnson ranks 11th among NFL interior linemen with 14 sacks, the highest total by an undrafted defensive tackle in that time span. He credits his success to fitting better in Minnesota's defensive scheme than he did in New Orleans and to learning under Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson.
"Coach 'Dre knows how to pull out the best talent and the best techniques for his individual players," Johnson said. "My game has jumped up a lot."
He added that annually returning such a consistent group of defensive players has been key. Specifically in the defensive line room, eight players on the Vikings current roster were with the team in 2016. Seven date back at least to 2015, and six of them have been together since 2014.
Johnson described his line mates as "hungry."
"Guys are starving," Johnson said. "They want to get better, which pushes you to be better … to strive for greatness every day that you come out here and put on the pads.
"Our nickel team has been pretty much the same the last two years," Johnson added. "When we're out there, guys already know if it's just a look or just a nod, you can vibe off of it."
As the Vikings have been able to maintain depth on the line, the unit has often found success through its rotation of players, specifically at defensive tackle. Johnson said he's noticed an increased level of trust from Zimmer in response to the chemistry he sees on the defensive line.
"He gives us a lot more leeway on the things that we like to do, more exotic things that we like," Johnson said. "The front four [can] go out there and attack quarterbacks, where you don't have to add an extra guy – the linebackers can drop into coverage, which puts [additional] pressure on the quarterback."
Added Johnson: "That's huge when you have your head coach feeling that confident in your unit."
Johnson, who will turn 33 in August, reflects back on entering the league in 2006 as an alum of Southern Mississippi and comparing an offseason then to his approach now.
He explained that in addition to learning how to take better care of his body, he's also intentional about training apart from the team facility after the season comes to a close.
"There's a science to it," said Johnson, who works out with James Cooper in Houston before returning to Minnesota for voluntary team activities. "He pounds a lot, but we also do yoga, you know, you find things like that … It's a year-long thing."
Johnson takes his offseason responsibilities seriously, and he puts an equal amount of emphasis on his role within the locker room. While he never stops looking for ways to improve, Johnson also understands that younger players are looking up to him as one of the veteran-most guys on the roster headed into 2017.
"Everybody wants to be great in their own individual lane, so it pushes you," Johnson said. "But you also have to be able to lead by example."
When he takes the practice field, Johnson keeps in mind that players like rookie Jaleel Johnson or recently signed Will Sutton have their eyes on him.
"When a younger guy sees you doing things and making plays, he wants to do the same thing," Johnson said. "So I give them little tips that they can build upon, so when he's in a similar situation, he already knows.
"Everybody here wants to make the next person better," Johnson said. "Because when you're in a game, I'm depending on him just like he's depending on me to do my job at a high level."
Johnson likes what he's seen throughout the first five organized team activity practices, but he said the team has a lot of work to do between now and the Vikings season opener at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sept. 11.
Team-wide excitement surrounds the *Monday Night Football *game that will pit Minnesota against New Orleans – and the Vikings defense against Adrian Peterson – but the matchup could hold a little extra weight for Johnson, especially after training with Peterson in Houston prior to the running back signing with Johnson's former team.
"It's a huge chance for our fans to come out, and I think that everybody's excited," Johnson said. "It's Adrian Peterson, a guy that's meant so much for this organization, and it would be great for us to be able to shut him down in our home [stadium]."
And looking ahead to his second rematch with the Saints since 2014, Johnson has his sights set on quarterback Drew Brees.
"I haven't had a chance to sack him," Johnson said. "Last time we played them, I only had a chance to hit him once; they were getting [the ball] out, getting it out, getting it out. Hopefully I get a sack and a couple hits on him.
"I still have relationships with a lot of their core guys," Johnson continued. "You always want bragging rights with them."