FOXBORO -- When Anthony Johnson visited the Patriots for a workout as a free agent, Bill Belichick gave him the once-over and was taken aback by what he saw. He remembered Johnson as a reserve defensive lineman who played in seven games with the Dolphins as a rookie in 2014. That player tipped the scales at 325 pounds.
The player standing in front of him ready to work out was about 50 pounds lighter.
"Honestly, I didn’t even recognize him when we brought him in for a workout," Belichick said. "I looked at him and said, 'Do we have the right guy here?' "
They did, and they signed Johnson -- who was out of football for most of the 2015 season -- in May. The move proved precient as Johnson is now making his case for a roster spot after an explosive performance in Thursday night's preseason game.
Johnson missed last week's matchup with the Saints because of an injury. Getting an opportunity to rush from the interior against the Bears, he swatted down a Jay Cutler pass during the game-opening drive. In the second quarter, he split a sack with Trey Flowers, stuffed running back Jaquizz Rodgers for a three-yard loss, and recorded a pressure on third down to help force a punt. In the fourth quarter, Johnson showed up again, this time as a member of the Patriots' goal-line package on fourth down, pushing the pocket to help force another incompletion and a turnover on downs.
After the game, Johnson, who said he now checks in at 280 pounds (though he's listed at 295), explained that he feels as comfortable with his weight as he has in a long time. Whereas the Dolphins asked him to add almost 20 pounds to a frame that measured in at 308 when he showed up at the NFL Scouting Combine after his junior season at LSU, Johnson's body is now closer to where it was when he played at 290 pounds as a highly-regarded recruit for the Tigers.
He says it's the lightest he's been since he was a 260-pound middle-school quarterback -- "That's a fact. Hashtag fact," he said -- and it's helped give him the quickness he needs to break into opposing backfields.
"I like to categorize myself as a silver-back gorilla," he said. "Just go out there and be ferocious and just play."
It wasn't easy for Johnson to shed all that weight, he explained. He had to sweat -- a lot -- and he quit some of his favorite foods, particularly the ones that reminded him of where he grew up in Louisiana. Jambalaya, jumbo shrimp, and his mom’s baked macaroni all had to go.
"He’s kind of gone in the other direction from being a big guy and really trimming down and his skills are different," Belichick said. "He’s faster. He’s quicker. He’s obviously lighter. Doesn’t have as much power, but he was an interesting guy. He was a good player coming out of college, an interesting workout, and a guy that’s a lot different than most of our other interior defensive lineman, so we thought in signing him that his skills might complement some of the other players that we have,. We’ll just see how that plays out."
The Patriots have gone heavy with their interior defensive linemen lately, drafting Malcom Brown (320 pounds) in the first round last year, taking Vincent Valentine (320) in the third round this year, and signing Terrance Knighton (355) and Markus Kuhn (315) this offseason to go along with veteran Alan Branch (350).
In fact, the Patriots player who most closely resembles Johnson's body type (6-foot-2, 280 pounds) is one who's no longer with the team: 2014 first-round pick Dominique Easley (6-2, 285), who was released in April and has since signed with the Rams.
Cut by the Dolphins at the end of last year's training camp and out of football until the Redskins signed him to their practice squad in November, Johnson, who went undrafted the same year the Patriots selected Easley, came into the league with few expectations. When he agreed to a deal with the Patriots, the expectations were non-existent.
But against the Bears on Thursday, he played well enough to earn some consideration for a roster spot.