Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider have long seen value in acquiring players who, for one reason or another, play with a chip on their shoulders. Whether it’s draft status, physical stature or some other perceived slight, some of the Seahawks’ best players in recent years have thrived on proving people wrong.
So it’s only fitting that one offseason acquisition that the Seahawks are counting on to make a difference in 2018 is a player who overcame a lot of obstacles to get to this point in his career.
Tom Johnson, one of two former Minnesota Vikings, along with Shamar Stephen, that the Seahawks signed on consecutive days in March to bolster their defensive line, traveled a long and unusual road before establishing himself in the NFL.
Johnson went undrafted out of Southern Mississippi—and that was after two years of junior college football—then after being cut by Indianapolis as a rookie, he was re-signed by the Colts the following year then assigned to the Cologne Centurions of NFL Europe. Johnson also played in the Arena Football League with the Philadelphia Soul and Grand Rapids Rampage, then joined the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders. In 2011, five years after he went undrafted, Johnson finally made his NFL debut, appearing in 13 games with the New Orleans Saints. Johnson has since carved out a solid career, appearing in 102 games over seven seasons, including 15 starts for the team that allowed the fewest points and yards in the league last season. Established or not, the 33-year-old Johnson still has the same chip on his shoulder that helped him fight his way through three leagues before reaching the NFL.
“It’s the foundation of who I am on and off the field, just because of where I came from,” Johnson said. “That’s how I approach every day, I approach every day like I need to be productive, I need to do something. If I’m not getting better, I’m taking a step back. I take the same approach out here, I see that there’s guys who feel that same here, guys bringing their lunch pail to work every day, grinding, running.
“I don’t take anything for granted. My role and my personality is one of those things to keep me humble. I don’t take any day in the NFL for granted. You know there’s always talent here trying to take your place. This is a job where you have to come in every day and earn your keep. So to have longevity, you’ve got to be productive daily, and if you’re not, they’ll find somebody who can do that instead of you.”
Carroll has really come to appreciate Johnson's attitude since the he arrived in Seattle, so much so that he wishes the Seahawks would have signed him a lot earlier than they did.
“I wish we would have found him six or seven year ago when we first got here," Carroll said. "He’s one of our guys. He’s got the chip on his shoulder, and he shows it day in and day out by the way he approaches his work, his mentality. He wants to practice every day, he doesn’t want to come off the field. He wants to prove it and show it. He’s fantastic. We love it that he’s in that room—he’s got a lot of young guys with him, and he’s going to be a fantastic influence on those guys.”
Stephen, 27, took a more conventional route, though as a seventh-round pick in 2014, he too had to fight to stay in the NFL and maintains that mentality even after four seasons, including one as a starter in 2016.
“I’m just a hard-working, team kind of player,” Stephen said. “I’m going to do what helps the team out, I’m a competitor, so I’m just trying to compete with everybody and help everybody out. For me the biggest thing is to just be dedicated to my craft and show my effort and show my talent, just to help the team out.”
Together, Johnson and Stephen are expected to bring a veteran presence to what otherwise is a relatively young line following the offseason departures of 2017 starters Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Sheldon Richardson.
“Both those guys have made big impressions already and we’re really excited about how they can get into the mix and contribute,” Carroll said. “They’re really different players but they’re both going to be a part of the rotations.”
In June, Carroll went more in depth on what those two had shown to that point, noting that Stephen had impressed even while unable to take part in on-field workouts—he has since returned to health and practiced throughout camp.
“Shamar has made an impression about his work ethic, even though he’s not on the field,” Carroll said. “How he studies, the way he communicates, the way he’s helped younger guys learn and grow, he’s in on everything, he’s not distanced himself at all even though he hasn’t been able to get on the field. So he’s made really good first impressions. Tom has been right in the middle of everything and I wish we would have found him years ago. He’s a great competitor, he’s got a tough mentality, he cares tremendously, he’s a great worker, he’s exactly the kind of guy we like having on the team. You guys might not realize this but Tom and Shamar played a lot of football last year, on a really good defense, on a really good defensive line, with a really good package of stuff that they do and we just kind of got those guys to come over here. I’m very confident in what those guys are bringing. I studied the heck out of it. I’ve seen everything that they’ve done the past couple years and I know what we’re getting. This worked out really very well for us. I’m thrilled about those guys. And of course we haven’t seen Shamar but Shamar’s going to be big and play big like we like from those guys inside. If everything comes back as we expect, he’ll have a big role for us. It’s great for our depth.”
Though both are listed as defensive tackles, Stephen and Johnson will have different roles on Seattle’s defense. Stephen is more of a run-stuffing tackle who could contribute on early downs, while the Seahawks see Johnson more as an interior pass-rusher who can help in nickel packages. Both will have to continue to prove themselves to cement themselves in those roles, but the early returns have been encouraging.
“Shamar’s a big-time run-stuffer, physical guy in the middle, and very, very smart,” defensive line coach Clint Hurtt said. “Tom is a guy who adds another element to our pass-rush, he’s physical, smart, a consummate pro. We’re super excited, love having them.”
Practice photos from Day 9 of 2018 Seahawks training camp at Virginia Mason Athletic Center.