WATCH: MONDAY'S PRESS CONFERENCES
Eight hundred and 95 days passed between George Johnson's waiver from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and his return to the team as a trade acquisition last week. Many playing careers don't even last that long; in fact, Johnson's own NFL story nearly faded to black in that interim. The ones that last are generally more stable, but for Johnson those 895 days were full of ups and downs, triumphs and failures, bursts of activity and interminable waits.
To be sure, April 15 was one of the triumphs. That was the day the Buccaneers re-acquired the fourth-year defensive end at the cost of a swap of 2015 draft picks. Originally, Bucs had hoped to sign Johnson away from the Detroit Lions as a restricted free agent, but a challenge to the contract structure led to arbitration, which in turn led to a pragmatic solution between the two clubs. Put it all together, and for Johnson it was a clear demonstration that his original NFL team strongly wanted him around again.
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Check out photos from George Johnson's breakout season with the Lions.
"I always want to be part of a team who wants me, because if the team wants you that means they believe in you," said Johnson, who had six sacks in his breakout season with the Lions last fall. "They believe in something that you have, and this is actually the first time I've actually been wanted this way. For them to fight for me like that, I'm just excited to get down here."
Those were Johnson's thoughts at the end of the first day of the team's offseason program on Monday, when he spoke at a press conference podium he probably never visited during his first 30 months in Tampa. He had joined the team as a rookie free agent in 2010 and spent most of the next two years bouncing between the practice squad, the active roster and the game-day inactive list. He had played in just four games and made three tackles through 2011, but seemed to catch a break when the Buccaneers hired his former college coach, Greg Schiano, as their new head coach in 2012. Johnson did make Schiano's first roster but was waived on November 1.
"Each cut hurts, it doesn't matter how deep it is," said Johnson. "It's always going to hurt. When they let me go, it got down really deep because that was my college coach. I played with him for four years, and in Tampa, but everything happens for a reason. The way that happened, I can really say it was a blessing in disguise."
Indeed, after about a year with the Minnesota Vikings, he was released in October of 2013, and his phone wasn't ringing. His agent had to talk him out of retiring, but things changed when the Lions called in April of 2014. He finally got a shot to play in the season that followed and became an important member of one of the league's best defensive lines.
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One of the reasons Johnson was finally able to make an impact after years of spinning his wheels was one of those things that went down during those 895 days: his weight. He has found a more defined role as an edge rusher after slimming down and trading one aspect of his skill set to make another one better.
"When I left here I was 280, sometimes 285," said Johnson. "Now I've cut down to 260-265. Playing that light it just feels like I can do more things. I don't have the power that I had at 280 but the quickness and agility is even better now."
Conversely, his maturity level and understanding of the game went up while he was trying to find a more permanent NFL home.
"Those couple years that I was actually just waiting, I was actually able to learn," said Johnson. "Some guys actually mature by just watching and learning from other people, and that's what I actually did. I matured by learning from other guys and actually was able to incorporate some of the things that they did into my game."
That approach has apparently created a more well-rounded player, one who demonstrates enough to the coaches that he should be in the mix on Sundays rather than just toiling on the practice field, trying to prove over and over that he is good enough to play. Johnson may have made that leap, but he never wouldn't have had the chance if he didn't possess an innate skill to get past blockers. That's something Gerald McCoy, then a fellow rookie, saw back in Johnson in 2010.
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"George always had the ability to rush the passer," said McCoy. "His years here, when I was with him, he could rush inside, he could rush outside, he played all over the field. But one thing he could always do was rush the passer, so that's why they brought him in – they want him to get after the quarterback."
Now Johnson wants to use that ability to take some of the pressure off McCoy, who had 8.5 sacks last season, and give opposing blockers a more widespread problem to face up front. Since the Buccaneers' current set of defensive ends is largely young and short on experience, it's not yet certain how the depth chart will fall out, or if there will be another major addition to that corps. That uncertainty doesn't concern Johnson because he's used to fighting for what he gets in the NFL.
"They didn't really tell me anything," he said, regarding the Bucs' notion for his role in the defense. "They just told me, 'You're going to come in here, you're going to work.' And I had no problem with that. I've been doing that my entire career. I've been working to stay on the team, working to find a spot on the roster, so it's no problem. I don't care where I really start – rotation or starter – but I'm just going to work, regardless."
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