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Gophers' Tyler Johnson emerging as top NFL Draft prospect

The senior receiver could be a first-round pick in next April's draft.

After last season, Minnesota Gophers receiver Tyler Johnson had the opportunity to declare for the NFL Draft. With the 2018 draft class few and far between on impact talent at receiver, it was possible that Johnson could have been selected within the first couple rounds thanks to a monster junior season that saw him catch 78 passes for 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Instead, the Minneapolis native chose to stay with the Gophers and has been a key part of the team's best start in 104 years. While the opportunity to make history at the U of M may have delayed his jump to the NFL by a year, Johnson's draft stock has never been higher and could make him one of this year's top prospects at receiver despite a loaded draft class.

So what is it that makes Johnson so desirable to NFL teams? To put it in layman's terms, Johnson is the complete package for what NFL teams want in their pass catchers.

One of Johnson's biggest strengths is his ability to win with his route running. Over the past couple of seasons, Johnson's specialty to get open on the slant route has made him a red-zone weapon, racking up 29 touchdowns during his time with the Gophers.

Pro Football Focus' Austin Gayle provided some evidence prior to this season as Johnson's 2018 highlight tape showed slant routes for days that turned into easy scores for the Gophers.

Johnson is also more than just a slant route specialist. With solid speed, Johnson has the ability to get open downfield and, if need be, go up and get the football. That's carried over to this year and the senior made several highlight grabs including a 28-yard touchdown to open the third quarter against Iowa on Saturday.

In addition to the score, Johnson also won on another deep ball later in the third quarter that nearly brought the Gophers back from a 20-3 deficit.

Although he committed a crucial fourth-down drop that ended the drive, it was still a giant afternoon for Johnson with nine catches for 190 yards and a touchdown. While his performance has played a large role in the emergence of quarterback Tanner Morgan, it also has other people starting to take notice and may even push him into the first or second round of the draft.

The Draft Network's Jonah Tuls is one fan of Johnson's work, thanks to his size, athleticism, and route-running ability. While the Gopher has all the tools to succeed, Tuls noted that he hasn't shown up in too many mock drafts, but also expects that to change.

"I think it all boils down to Tyler Johnson not being as dynamic or flashy as some of the top guys in this class like [Alabama's] Jerry Jeudy [and] Henry Ruggs, [Oklahoma's] CeeDee Lamb, etc," Tuls said. "Other than Jeudy, you can argue Johnson is the best pure route runner in this class, whether playing on the outside or in the slot. But Johnson doesn't get the national recognition that others receive in this 2020 crop of wide receiver prospects. While other players' success are centered around a couple plays in the highlight reel, Tyler Johnson is quietly putting up another year of consistent, elite tape."

With another big performance and at least three games to go, Johnson's 59 catches for 900 yards and nine touchdowns could eclipse what he did last year. With the rollercoaster that comes with the NFL Draft process, a good workout and a team in need could make Johnson the first Gopher to be selected in the first round since Laurence Maroney in 2006 and the highest-drafted receiver in the history of the program.

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