ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Alexander Johnson was just two starts into his Broncos career when one of the franchise's greatest linebackers heaped praise on the young player.
Al Wilson, a five-time Pro Bowler and one-time first-team All-Pro, knew of Johnson because of their shared collegiate alma mater.
At the University of Tennessee, Wilson won a national championship and earned All-American honors. More than a decade later, Johnson arrived at Tennessee and was named a Freshman All-American in 2011. He also earned first-team All-SEC honors in 2013, and he recorded the most tackles in his career of any SEC player since at least 2005.
So when Johnson signed with the Broncos in 2018 as a free agent, Wilson knew the type of player Denver was getting. Johnson, whose pro career was put on hold for more than three years as he dealt with legal issues, had talent.
And after Wilson saw Johnson play a couple of games in 2019, he knew it could translate to the NFL game.
"When you watch linebackers, you always wonder if a guy is going to show up on film," Wilson told DenverBroncos.com in October. "And obviously this is a guy that just shows up on film. He just seems to be around the ball, he just seems to make plays. Some of those things you just can't coach. It's just a natural God-given ability that he has, and he has that natural knack for the ball and instincts that you need to be a good middle linebacker. I believe that he can be an All-Pro, Pro Bowl middle linebacker if he just continues to study the game, stay focused and committed to it. There's no question he can be one of the best middle linebackers in the business."
Wilson offered his assessment following a Week 6 game against the Titans in which Johnson recorded 1.5 sacks, nine tackles, a tackle for loss and two quarterback hits.
Though Johnson signed with the team in 2018, he appeared in just one game that first year and played exclusively on special teams. Early in the 2019 season, the same was true again. Johnson played in three of the Broncos' first four games, but he didn't take a defensive snap.
But after the Broncos allowed Leonard Fournette to rush for 225 yards in Week 4, Johnson had an opportunity to make an impression. Johnson started in place of Josey Jewell in Week 5 in Los Angeles as Jewell dealt with a hamstring injury, and he recorded eight tackles and an interception in his first career defensive action.
The interception of Philip Rivers in the end zone helped preserve the Broncos' lead in their eventual first win of the season.
Johnson started the following week against the Titans — and every game the rest of the year. Even after Jewell returned to full health, Johnson didn't relinquish his spot.
In his 12 starts, Johnson finished with 93 tackles, three passes defensed, two forced fumbles, 1.5 sacks, five tackles for loss, four quarterback hits and an interception.
He recorded double-digit tackles in three different games, as he tallied 13 against Cleveland, 15 against Buffalo and 11 in the season finale against Oakland.
Johnson also earned league-wide honors as he was named Pro Football Focus' defensive player of the month for October.
"He's not perfect yet, but he's played really well for us," Head Coach Vic Fangio said after the team's Week 9 win over the Browns. "He's been a nice shot in the arm for us. He's really played good."
Fangio, who has a history of coaching Pro Bowl and Hall of Fame inside linebackers, handed game balls to Johnson on two different occasions. Johnson earned one following the Broncos' Week 5 win over the Chargers and was given another after he battled through a knee injury to play in the Broncos' Week 13 rematch against the Chargers.
"[I'm] very impressed that he battled through," Fangio said after the Week 13 win. "He didn't play quite as good as he had been, but he was out there battling. By no means was he even close to 100 percent. You saw it on some plays where he was reluctant to stick his foot in the ground and contributed to him getting blocked sometimes, but overall, he battled through it and played well."
Johnson's toughness coupled with his athleticism to make him a complete linebacker. He fared decently in pass coverage, and his sideline-to-sideline speed helped him chase down running backs in space. Then, when he found himself facing backs inside the box, he used his 6-foot-2, 255-pound frame to drag down opponents.
His energy helped the defense, as well. Never seen a football player act like a dinosaur or saber-toothed tiger? You have now, after watching Johnson celebrate a tackle.
Johnson, though, could be even more ferocious in his second full season as a starter.
"He had about three years away from football," Fangio said in late December. "That's a long time. To come back and get thrown right in there and start playing and play as well as he did, I think it speaks volumes about his talent and his ability and who he is as a guy.
"Hopefully a solid offseason will make him even better."