Mammoth guard Fred Johnson hard to miss at Steelers training camp, gets shot at tackle
Fred Johnson might be the tallest guard who’s ever attended a Pittsburgh Steelers training camp. And in what might have been a sign of just how much Johnson intrigues the Steelers, they even threw him into the proverbial fire at tackle, too.
For the 2-minute drill simulation at the end of Saturday’s practice, Johnson was told to play left tackle.
“That was the first time this camp I was at tackle,” Johnson said afterward.
An undrafted rookie from Florida, Johnson has generally been the second-team right guard during camp this far. At 6-foot-7, he’s impossible to miss, particularly at an interior position (no other Steelers guard or center is listed as taller than 6-5).
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But Johnson has been a guard since the Florida coaches moved him there early in his sophomore season. Johnson started 31 games as the Gators’ right guard from 2016-18. He was one of the Steelers’ top targets soon after the draft ended in April (he got a $15,000 bonus from the Steelers).
Of the four rookie offensive linemen (Derwin Gray was a seventh-round pick; the other three undrafted free agents), Johnson is the only one to consistently get second-team reps during this camp. He’s also been the most consistent performer of the rookies.
“I’m just feeling like I need to improve every day,” Johnson said. “Every day take something to work on the next day. Our coaches are really technique-oriented in how they do stuff, and I’m trying to do it the way they want it and not the way I want it.”
The offensive line depth chart is crowded; the five starters (assuming Matt Feiler wins the starting job), second-year former third-round pick Chuks Okorafor and $3 million-plus backup B.J. Finney are guaranteed spots if healthy. Jerald Hawkins and Zach Banner are returnees from a past Steelers’ 53-man roster, too.
The Steelers won’t keep any more than nine offensive linemen on the 53-man. Center/guard Patrick Morris returns from the practice squad, and former Alabama center/guard J.C. Hassenauer has been impressive in camp. Gray will get a look because of the invested draft pick.
In short, it won’t be a slam-dunk for Johnson to even make the practice squad. But getting that sudden look at tackle — in a high-profile team drill — shows the Steelers are strongly considering Johnson because they demand versatility out of their linemen.
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“Me being able to play tackle is just more tools in my shed for me to use; it creates more versatility and helps the team be better overall,” Johnson said. “I feel at home at guard. But I’ll play anywhere they put me. If they need a guard, I’ll be a guard. If they need a tackle, I’ll be a tackle.
“At least for a couple snaps.”
The handful he got Saturday included one gaffe: a holding penalty called by the officials on hand. It stalled the second-team offense’s scoring drive. Johnson didn’t think he did anything worthy of being flagged, but he did acknowledge it wasn’t a smooth showing.
“My stance was bad, and I can’t really ‘punch’ how I wanted,” Johnson said. “But it was just really trying to overcome adversity and be ready to go.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .