Under Chris Ballard, the Indianapolis Colts have made it a habit of routinely finding their "guys" during the Senior Bowl, taking full advantage of the week in Mobile, Ala., early in the pre-draft process to fully evaluate some of the more intriguing draft prospects.
For many smaller-school players, the Senior Bowl is a prime opportunity to show what they're made of against some of the best senior big-school talent in the country, a la Darius Leonard in 2018.
On Saturday, it appears, the Colts picked up their latest small-school Senior Bowl standout.
Indianapolis used its fifth-round (159th-overall) selection in the 2022 NFL Draft on Missouri State University defensive tackle Eric Johnson, who, according to multiple reports, had strong pre-draft all-star performances at both the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and the Senior Bowl.
Johnson said he also enjoyed getting the chance to have an in-depth pre-draft visit to the Colts' facility, which further cemented his position on the team's draft board.
"Being at the Senior Bowl, when everybody got to look at me, they got to see past just the cloud of what school I came from or what they may have heard about me. They could just see solid evidence of how I could play, how I could affect other people there," Johnson told Colts.com's Larra Overton. "And (the Colts) being able to pull me in (for the visit), they got a good feel for me while I was at the facility and I got to meet with different coaches and talk some ball so they could figure out what type of personality I would bring to the room, and here I am. So I'm excited."
A 6-foot-4, 299-pound Plainfield, Ill., native, where he was also a prep wrestling standout, Johnson contributed early and often at Missouri State, starting nine games as a redshirt freshman. By 2021, Johnson had earned back-to-back Second-Team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference honors as both a standout along the defensive line and on special teams.
During his college career, Johnson racked up 131 total tackles, including 19.5 tackles for loss, and 6.5 sacks, while also blocking five kicks, including a potential game-winning field goal to defeat a ranked Illinois State team in 2018.
That kind of special teams production, Johnson knows, could be an advantage as he arrives in Indianapolis to begin his first NFL season.
"It's very valuable," Johnson told Colts.com's Larra Overton. "You see multiple times games being won and lost on the special teams. … So every time we're up there, if it's an opportunity to win and put points on, or even take points off, the board, and it's just as important as any down on offense or defense. So having that mentality and coming through was always a priority and it's very important."
Defensively, the Colts could also use Johnson's talents to help supplement some key depth lost up front in defensive tackles Taylor Stallworth (now with the Kansas City Chiefs) and Antwaun Woods (currently a free agent) and defensive ends Al-Quadin Muhammad (now with the Chicago Bears), Kemoko Turay (San Francisco 49ers) and Isaac Rochell (Cleveland Browns).
The Colts return both starters at defensive tackle in DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart, and are set at defensive end with returning starter Kwity Paye and the recently-acquired Yannick Ngakoue. Also returning are key depth pieces Tyquan Lewis and Dayo Odeyingbo, both of whom can play inside or off the edge.
Others in the mix now alongside Johnson on the offseason roster are defensive tackles R.J. McIntosh and Chris Williams, and defensive ends Kameron Cline and Ben Banogu.
"Oh yeah, I'm very excited," Johnson said of getting to Indianapolis to begin working with his new veteran teammates. "Having great mentors in front of me just allows me to absorb more information. I get to learn from them and see their habits and stuff, and really pick apart their brain and figure out my part on the team there. I feel like that will be a great opportunity for me to be able to learn and progress as a player."