METAIRIE, La. – Tight end Juwan Johnson might have been more famous off the field than on it before his breakout season with the New Orleans Saints.
He and his wife, Chanen, created a TikTok account and blew up into social media stars, and he's learned to juggle all of this in the past two years.
He also began to shift from wide receiver to tight end prior to last season, and as far as this season goes, Johnson and his seven touchdowns trail only Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce at his position. Seven is also tied for seventh among all pass-catchers heading into Week 16.
But Johnson has loved the position change from the start, noting his eagerness to do more blocking. He also joked that he'd get to eat more to bulk up.
Two years in, he's embraced the chance to learn something new every day, admitting that sometimes he still feels like he "doesn't know anything" in terms of how far he can go.
But it's almost certain he didn't expect to have 2.5 million TikTok followers from doing skits with his wife either when he started.
"Honestly, I just think the versatility of it," Johnson said when asked what he loves about the move now. "There's times where I can block, there's times where I can catch, there's times where I can block and catch. Just a mixture of all types of things, but it's also more exciting for me that, just being a student of the actual game, that I learn a ton more right now than I did as a receiver.
"No discredit to the receivers, but you just learn a lot more at the tight end position."
Playing receiver had started to feel stale for Johnson after doing it for most of his life. So, a change felt exciting.
"I felt like for me in that time in my career, I just feel like it kind of got boring to me," Johnson said. "Not necessarily boring, but kind of like, 'I already know' sort of attitude. But I just feel like in this role as a tight end, I'm always learning something new, and I just feel like that's how it's going to be for the rest of my career, knowing that this is only my second year into it and I have so much more to learn."
As Johnson soaks up the knowledge, it's started to pay dividends. Johnson has been a scoring machine lately, catching five touchdowns in his past four games.
The highlight of those was a 19-yard pass from quarterback Andy Dalton in the first quarter of a 21-18 win against the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday. Johnson caught the pass, made three tacklers miss, spun around and used his 6-foot-4 frame to lunge into the end zone. It was his first of two on the day.
“I’m sure it was a busted coverage, but nobody covered me, and as they say, I just tried to get freaky,” Johnson said after the game. “I tried to do my thing. It’s not too many times I’m in the open field, so I just tried to get into the end zone.”
Despite the struggles for the Saints (5-9), players like Johnson are a reason for hope for the future. His success could be a preview of the next generation of breakout offensive stars for the team, a group that includes rookies like wide receiver Chris Olave, a first-round pick, and speedy wideout Rashid Shaheed, who went undrafted out of Weber State.
The trio has combined for 12 of the team’s 23 receiving touchdowns this year.
When asked about it after the Falcons game, a contest in which Shaheed also had a 68-yard touchdown, Johnson cracked a joke, glancing at Shaheed, who was waiting off to the side to take the podium for his own postgame interview.
“Rashid, do we play with a chip on our shoulder?” Johnson asked, smiling, before looking back at the media. “Yeah. Just knowing that you’ve been overlooked through the whole draft, kind of gives you that extra boost.”
But that success certainly didn’t come out of nowhere. In 2018, when Johnson was a wide receiver at Penn State, he made headlines for a spectacular, one-handed catch that picked up 31 yards against Ohio State.
Johnson spent four years at Penn State before transferring to Oregon in 2019 as a graduate transfer -- where he caught 30 passes for 467 yards and four touchdowns (including a three-touchdown game against USC).
“He was a little lighter then too,” said Saints offensive lineman Calvin Throckmorton, who played with Johnson at Oregon. “The way he moves, he’s got great movement skills, great ball skills. Just a great football player. I always thought he was a really good receiver, and now he’s a good tight end too.”
Johnson ended his college career with a 28-yard reception from quarterback Justin Herbert to seal a 28-27 Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin, but his big moments weren't enough to draw the interest of NFL teams in the 2020 draft. So he ended up signing with the Saints as an undrafted free agent.
Now those big moments are coming more often. Johnson has evolved from a little-used receiver who had four catches as a rookie in 2020 to one of the most trusted offensive players on the team and a true red zone threat.
Even though he missed the team’s Week 13 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his 534 snaps (61.45%) are more than anyone on offense outside of Dalton and the offensive linemen.
“There’s definitely a comfort level there,” Dalton said. “Juwan has done a lot of really good things, both the touchdowns were good run-after-catch plays by him. I feel like he’s playing with a ton of confidence, and it’s showing up on Sundays.”
It was clear early in the season that he’d already earned the team’s trust as the go-to tight end in the two-minute drill. Taysom Hill, who's also a converted tight end (but he runs plenty of snaps at quarterback still as well), said Johnson’s work ethic toward learning the position didn’t make his success a surprise at all.
“I love Juwan. Juwan is a great friend. I’ve had a lot of fun working with him,” Hill said. “He’s a guy that puts in the extra time. He’s out early to practice, stays late, prepares really hard. He’s one of those guys that’s just a unique matchup, and he’s a big, physical, fast player. ... He’s a big guy, and he’s tough to bring down. ... We’re obviously trying to get the ball in his hands.”
While everyone doesn't know Johnson's name and story just yet, if he keeps up this recent production, it won’t be long before he’s a household name both on TikTok and in the NFL.