Isaiah Johnson wasn't sure he wanted his phone to ring on Saturday morning.
This was the biggest Saturday of the year for hundreds of young players who were trying to stick in the NFL. All 32 teams had to have their rosters trimmed to 53 players by 4:00 p.m. that day, so chances are a phone call to a young man who believed he was on the bubble would contain bad news. Silence could be nerve-wracking too, of course, but if it lasted long enough it would turn into good news by default.
Johnson did get a call on Saturday morning, and it did in fact come from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers headquarters. On the other end was Head Coach Dirk Koetter…with good news for Johnson. Rather than make the first-year safety sweat it out to the deadline, Koetter wanted to let him know early that he was going to be on the roster.
"I wasn't expecting that," said a smiling Johnson on Monday, as the roster of which he remained a part began preparing for the Bucs' season opener in New Orleans. "I was nervous. It was one of the greatest calls I've ever had."
Johnson is technically a "first-year player," as noted above, because he has not yet earned any accrued seasons towards free agency. To do so, he would need to be on an active roster for six games during a season. Since arriving in the spring of 2016 as an undrafted free agent out of South Carolina, Johnson has essentially never left the Buccaneers, but he has had to bide his time to claim a significant role. He was on the practice squad for his entire rookie season and started on that unit again a year ago. The Buccaneers did in fact promote him to the active roster twice last year, once in October and once in December, but for a total of only five games.
Koetter, who surely must have enjoyed that call to Johnson on a day when he and his staff have to deliver so much bad news, knows that Johnson has used those two years at team headquarters to quietly but steadily improve his game.
As Koetter noted, the Bucs have moved players up from the practice squad to the active roster 41 times in the last three years, and some of them have gone through that transition, and it's reverse, more than once.
"I think there's 11 guys who've done it multiple times, and Isaiah's one of them," said the coach. "Isaiah is the perfect example of a guy who came in here, didn't say a word, just got better, got better, got better, got better. Scout team, special teams – improved as a safety and now here he is. He's on the 53. That's a good example to everyone, and everybody's got a different journey. It's really the same thing Adam Humphries did – Adam's just happened faster."
Johnson was one of the more surprising names left on the 53-man roster Saturday after the dust from all the cuts had settled. That's not because he seemed unworthy of the roster in any way; it simply looked like there was going to be a numbers crunch at safety, especially after the team drafted Pitt's Jordan Whitehead in the fourth round. However, the Bucs chose to part ways with Keith Tandy and Josh Robinson, going with Johnson as their fourth safety instead. Chris Conte and Justin Evans head into the season as the starters; Johnson will likely contribute right away on special teams.
Johnson credited both Tandy and Robinson, along with Conte, for helping him improve and persevere for the past two-plus years in Tampa. He also believes that a greater understanding of the defense is part of his taking the next step to an opening-day roster spot. Some of his development since his 2016 arrival has been physical, too. He says he has trimmed his body-fat percentage over the last year from 11% to 7.2%.
"Last year in the offseason, it was definitely my body, changing my body," said Johnson of his biggest change. "I've lost a lot of fat. During the offseason I felt like I was too heavy and a lot of players joked about it. I feel like I'm a lot lighter on my feet, on my toes, and I'm moving better."
Now that he's made it onto an opening-day roster, Johnson has one primary goal, which he has heard Koetter preach on many occasions: Stay consistent. He's actually been trying to live by that mantra throughout the time he was developing into a better player, with the help of reminders from Conte and Tandy.
"The biggest thing is to stay in your lane and stay focused," he said. "That was the biggest mission I had, even coming in as a rookie. I praise [the veteran safeties] all the time because they really helped me, stayed on me every day, kept me focused. They told me, 'Don't ever give up, keep pushing and eventually you'll see the light.'