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Indianapolis rookie lineman overcomes long odds

9/14/2007 - NFL

We're just one game into the regular season, but the 2007 rookie class already has been assessed as average.

At least by one measuring stick.

Led by 13 first-round selections, 30 rookies, not counting kickers and punters, started for the 32 franchises on opening weekend. That number is right about the average in recent seasons. Over the previous five seasons, the number of rookie starters in the league on opening weekend was 30.6, with a low of 26 and a high of 31. And so this year's class, with 16 players on offense and 14 on defense, was right around the recently established norm.

The exception is the most unlikely member of the group. Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle Ed Johnson had to overcome more than just the normal odds simply to make the roster of the defending Super Bowl XLI champions, let alone win a starting berth.

The former Penn State standout is the lone undrafted free agent from the rookie class of 2007 to start last week. In fact, only four prospects chosen after the first day of the draft were in starting NFL lineups last weekend. In addition to the 13 first-round choices who started, the official league play-by-play books showed there were 11 second-rounders, two players each from the third and fourth rounds, and one from the sixth stanza.

And then there is Johnson.

"It was a little bit like a dream," said Johnson, who registered three tackles in the Colts' rout of New Orleans.

The past few years, including draft weekend in April, were more like a nightmare for him.

Edward Johnson

Johnson

Defensive Tackle
Indianapolis Colts

Profile


Johnson slid all the way out of the 2007 draft, despite starting in a high-profile college program and performing as one of the Big Ten's top interior defensive linemen last season. The slide is attributable to a spate of off-field problems at Penn State. The Detroit native missed all or parts of two seasons -- suspended in 2004 and expelled from school for a full semester in 2005 -- and was held out of the Nittany Lions' appearance in the Outback Bowl in January for a violation of team rules.

In a league more conscious of character-risk type players, particularly after some of the sanctions imposed by commissioner Roger Goodell, that kind of dubious dossier raised plenty of red flags among NFL scouts. And so on a weekend that Johnson recalls as having been "about the most miserable and frustrating" couple days of his life, the phone did not ring. In the typically frantic hour or two after the final draft selection is made and clubs are scrambling to grab free agents, teams weren't eager to call.

The final selection in the draft might be dubbed Mr. Irrelevant, but Johnson was not relevant at all to anyone but the Indianapolis scouts. They saw in him the quickness that is requisite to play in the Colts' defense and, while Indianapolis didn't offer much money in a signing bonus, coach Tony Dungy offered Johnson a chance at redemption.

So far, so good. And because he has been good off the field, Johnson already has done much more on it than a lot of teams felt he could. It seems the scouting staff presided over by Colts team president and general manager Bill Polian is adept at locating a standout free agent nearly every year. And getting Johnson has been a huge bonus, especially since Indianapolis lost starting tackle Anthony McFarland to a season-ending patella tendon injury in camp.

Johnson beat out veterans Dan Klecko and Darrell Reid for the starting tackle job next to Raheem Brock, a former seventh-rounder.

"He knows the policies here and what's expected of him," Dungy said of Johnson. "And he knows he's under a microscope. We just had a feeling he could go in the right direction and that we had the kind of environment around here that would help him do that."

In the early days of camp, Johnson impressed coaches, and then he really jumped out when he collected two sacks against Dallas in the preseason opener. He has slimmed down some since his college days because the Colts' scheme is based on quickness, and he has benefited from the fast tempo at which the Penn State practices are run. But more than anything, Johnson has made himself into good player with hard work and by ignoring the long odds he faced by not being drafted.

Said the Colts' rookie after the opening-game victory: "I'm probably one of the longest of long shots, but that's OK. I always felt like I could play at the NFL level if I got a chance. And this team gave me a chance. I kind of owe them. At the same time, you don't make it if you don't work hard, because no one hands you anything at this (level). So that was on me to earn it, and I did. I mean, to start on opening day … there are first-round guys who don't do that, you know?"

Indeed, there were 19 first-round selections who weren't in starting lineups on opening day. A dozen franchises had no rookies starters last weekend. Six teams had two rookie starters each and Atlanta and Green Bay had three apiece.

From a position standout, offensive tackle led the way, with four starters, including three first-round picks -- Joe Thomas of Cleveland, Arizona's Levi Brown and Joe Staley of San Francisco. There were three starters each at wide receiver, guard, defensive tackle, safety and cornerback. Not surprisingly, quarterback was the lone position at which there was not a rookie starter.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.