NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Julio Jones and A.J. Brown have drawn the most attention out of the wide receivers at training camp for the Tennessee Titans. Quietly, the most consistent receiver at camp has been sixth-year wideout Marcus Johnson.
“Marcus has made some plays,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “I’m really excited about what he’s done. He’s shown some big-play ability to go get the football in tight coverage and win in one-on-one situations.”
Johnson has played well enough to make the roster and actually be a contributor. The 27-year-old’s biggest challenge throughout his career has been staying healthy, especially during camp.
“Training camp has been some of the toughest times for me. But thankfully I’m healthy right now,” Johnson said. “When I’m out there, I play well. Some of the things you just can’t control.”
Dating back to his college days at Texas, health concerns have kept Johnson from reaching his full potential.
Going into his junior year, Johnson dealt with breathing problems for months before going to the training staff about it. They directed him to a doctor, who examined his nose and discovered Johnson had a deviated septum. But there was also a growth in his nose which required a biopsy. Johnson was told it could be cancerous.
“That kind of rocked my whole little world,” Johnson said. “Being in college getting ready for the season, the last thing you would ever think is something being potential cancer.”
Johnson prayed on it and talked to his family. The biopsy came back negative, but Johnson had the nasal polyps removed in a separate procedure.
However the procedure was right before two-a-day practices, which are a critical part of getting ready for the season. Johnson fought through it and posted 27 receptions for 313 yards to set up what he hoped would be a big senior season.
Unfortunately, Johnson tore his meniscus the day before the spring game and missed most of summer training. Then he suffered a high ankle sprain against Notre Dame in the season opener.
The injury limited Johnson to just six games, and he needed a Toradol shot before each game to manage the pain. Hobbled by the injury, Johnson finished the season with just 12 catches for 130 yards.
Despite the setbacks, Johnson said he never wavered from his goal to become a professional player.
“Just believing in myself,” Johnson said. “Just God, knowing what he’s blessed me with and what I’m capable of. I don’t think I’ve been fully able to display that. I’ve had some unfortunate setbacks. Bad timing with certain things. I know what I can do. That stays in my mind regardless of the circumstance.”
Johnson had to rely on an outstanding performance at Texas’ pro day in 2016 to draw interest from NFL teams. He blazed a 4.39-second time in the 40-yard dash and posted 22 reps on the bench to go along with an 11-foot-3 broad jump.
Despite his impressive workout, Johnson went undrafted and signed with the Eagles as a free agent. On the first day of full-padded practice, Johnson suffered a quad injury that kept him sidelined for most of camp. He landed on the Eagles’ practice squad.
Johnson developed a close relationship with Eagles 2016 first-round pick QB Carson Wentz during their rookie season together. They attended the team’s Thursday Bible study sessions along with other teammates such as TEs Zach Ertz and Trey Burton. They held Johnson accountable if he was absent.
“I’d never been in an environment where people would say, ‘Hey bruh, why weren’t you at church?’ And I grew up in the church.”
Year 2 was a better experience for Johnson because he was healthy and able to make a push for a roster spot. He found out he made the Eagles’ final roster via Twitter.
Johnson carved out a role as a backup receiver and special teams contributor for Philadelphia’s Super Bowl-winning team. He grew stronger in his faith and got baptized the night before the Eagles’ Week 6 road game against the Carolina Panthers.
“That was the year that my faith changed, that was the year that I gave my life to Christ,” Johnson said. “That was the year that I said, ‘Lord, I’m not going to try to keep doing things on my own.'”
The next three seasons tested Johnson, but he maintained belief in himself and his abilities. The Eagles traded Johnson and a fifth-round pick to the Seattle Seahawks for defensive lineman Michael Bennett. Then Seattle traded Johnson to the Indianapolis Colts for tight end Darrell Daniels months later.
A concussion, torn ankle ligament and hamstring strain led to Johnson shuffling on and off the Colts’ roster from 2018-20. He had two 100-yard receiving performances over his three-year span with the Colts, including a career-high 108 yards against the Cincinnati Bengals last October.
Johnson says his faith kept him level-headed through adversity. He worked closely with the Pike Young Life chapter in Indianapolis, which gave him a chance to hold Bible study, where he gave 15-minute sermons to kids.
“That was something that really kept me grounded during some of the toughest times in Indy,” Johnson said. “When I was going through it, they were the most consistent things in my life.”
The Titans signed Johnson to the practice squad last December and liked what they saw from him. Coach Mike Vrabel pointed to Johnson’s size and speed as traits he liked.
“He has been durable, out there every day being available,” Vrabel said. “Whatever mistakes he makes, he quickly corrects and usually rarely makes the second mistake twice.”
The crowded Titans receiver room has created a lot of competition for limited spots at the back end of the rotation. Johnson was in the same situation with the Eagles in 2017 when they signed free agents Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. He elevated his game then, just as he’s doing now.
“This is one of the most talented receiving groups I’ve been in. It brings the best out of me,” Johnson said. “You look at it, and you’re like, ‘The cream rises to the top.’ Just stick to your process and don’t get caught up in all of the other things.”
Offensive coordinator Todd Downing added, “Marcus has been an example of someone who has taken advantage of the opportunity to go out there and get some runs with the ones. He has really done a nice job of being consistent both at X and Z out on the perimeter.”
This camp also has special meaning to Johnson because he decided to wear a new jersey number. Johnson’s father Marlon played college basketball at Prairie View A&M. But he played football in middle school and wore No. 88.
“It came to the forefront when I got here because it was available,” Johnson said with a smile. “[Marvin] Harrison had it in Indianapolis, so there was no way you’re touching 88. All that my dad has done in my career, he’s guided me every step of the way, so this was just a small piece of appreciation to say that, ‘I’m here because of you.’ I just wanted to dedicate this portion of the season to him.”