Los Angeles Chargers’ Zion Johnson: Can 2022’s First-Round Pick Solidify the Offensive Line?

Is this the year for Zion Johnson to break out for the Los Angeles Chargers?

Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Zion Johnson was drafted 17th overall in 2022 by the Los Angeles Chargers. At Boston College, he had experience playing in both the tackle and guard positions on the left side. The Chargers opted to move him to right guard for the 2022 season.

The Pro Football Focus (PFF) 2022 draft guide had Johnson listed as a “Day 1 starting guard,” and when asked where he could improve, it says “Johnson’s appeal is that his con section is darn near blank. He’s obviously not perfect by any means, but he doesn’t have glaring weaknesses on tape.”

Kevin Hanson of Sports Illustrated had him ranked sixth on his “2022 NFL Draft Prospect Rankings: Offensive Linemen” list, saying, “Johnson is smart and polished, plays under control and with good balance, and is a high-floor prospect who should develop into an above-average starter early in his career.”

Johnson has had flashes of strong play throughout two seasons with the Chargers, but he’s yet to prove he is a first-round difference-maker. Just as wide receiver Quentin Johnston needs to live up to his first-round status, so does Johnson. Under new head coach Jim Harbaugh will this be the year that Johnson finally does? 

Zion Johnson’s 2023 Play 

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Arizona Cardinals
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Zion Johnson was switched from right guard to left for the 2023 season, and he did marginally better pass blocking than in 2022. According to PFF, he had a pass blocking grade of 58.8, a few points up from 2022, and overall was the cause of fewer sacks (four), quarterback hits (seven), hurries (22), and pressures (33) than the previous year. His run blocking was worse, having gone down to 57.2 from 67.2% in 2022 with less run blocking snaps played.

Johnson had some good moments in 2023. His best game last season was Week 3 against Minnesota. He was responsible for zero hits, hurries, sacks, and pressures. In the first quarter, at the Chargers 45 yard line on a first-and-10, left tackle Rashawn Slater was beat, and even as Vikings outside linebacker D.J. Wonnum put on the pressure, Justin Herbert was able to scramble through a lane partially created by Johnson, who pivoted and held strong on defensive lineman Jaquelin Roy while Corey Linsley was holding steady on his block.

The strength and mobility of Johnson in that play, as well as his body control to not let Roy overpower him is on display. It’s also seen on a first-and-goal toward the end of the second quarter, when Johnson helps to create a running lane for running back Joshua Kelley for a short gain. Vikings defensive lineman Dean Lowry eventually gets around Johnson and attempts to stop Kelley, but Kelley manages to get a few more inches before being tackled.

Johnson has times where he just looks so sturdy, so immovable, but then he starts to make mistakes. 

I watched most of Johnson’s 2022 all-22 tape when I did a midseason rookie check in, and unfortunately there are some weaknesses of Lance Zierlein’s initial draft profile on Johnson, such as that he “can better help teammates dealing with the one- on-one rush”, and that he has “some struggles adjusting to moving targets,” that still ring true.

Johnson is solid as long as he can maintain the block. If the block gets away, he’s not able to recover easily. One such example is during the Miami game. On a 2nd-and-20 in the fourth quarter, with a minute or so left, defensive lineman Zach Sieler blitzes to Johnson’s inside and it’s over. Johnson’s left hanging onto Sieler’s jersey as he proceeds to take down Herbert.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs
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And on a 3rd-and-7 during the third quarter against the Titans in Week 2, defensive lineman Jeffrey Simmons squeezes right past Johnson and Slater and gets to Herbert.

Johnson’s not the best at adapting to blocks gone wrong and needs to react better to faster rushers. Overall, he’s been average and hasn’t lived up to the steadiness and the high praise of his initial assessments, which is difficult as a first round pick. Because the longer it takes to show that exceptionality, the harder it becomes to believe he was worth the choice. 

Los Angeles Chargers 2024 Offensive Line 

Johnson’s stats improved from 2022 to 2023 and he’s still a very solid pass protector. And there are some reasons outside of just poor production that he hasn’t lived up to the first round status. One reason was Linsley’s absence. Slater had more quarterback pressures (38) and hurries (28) than he’s ever had in 2023, and part of that can be attributed to Linsley’s absence as well as playing through a double-high ankle sprain. It’s hard for one part of the offensive line to be solid when other parts aren’t. Johnson also had to get reacquainted to the left side, which he hadn’t played since college, so that too didn’t help matters. 

I feel good about Johnson this season. He has two years under his belt, including one whole season back at left guard. The offensive line will be new and improved with a veteran center in Bradley Bozeman and a new right tackle in Joe Alt. Everything will just be more solid this year all around. So I’m calling it. This is going to be the year to start believing the Zion Johnson hype. 

NFL: Detroit Lions at Los Angeles Chargers
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