But with a few weeks before the training camp grind begins, both players returned to their Iowa roots and worked with around 40 other former Hawkeyes at the Legends of Iowa Football Camp.
The Minnesota Vikings selected Johnson, a first-team all-Big Ten defensive tackle, in the fourth round. The Los Angeles Chargers drafted King, a two-time All-American defensive back, in the fifth round.
Both players have impressed their clubs in their spring organized team activities and mini-camps. At minimum, Johnson (6-foot-3, 316 pounds) should work in the Vikings rotation and could start as a rookie alongside Linval Joseph. Johnson started his final 27 games at Iowa and led all Big Ten defensive tackles in 2016 with 7.5 sacks in the Hawkeyes’ two-gap scheme. He was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after gaining a sack, a safety and 9 tackles in a 14-13 upset of No. 3 Michigan last November.
“We made some positive steps moving forward,” Johnson said about the spring. “I’m learning from some really great guys like Linval, [Everson] Griffin and those guys. I’m looking forward to getting started in training camp.
“The tempo is definitely a lot quicker than I thought it would be. But it’s nothing that I can’t handle. I’m around a lot of great guys, guys who are willing to help you along.”
Los-Angeles-Chargers-Desmond King San-Francisco-49ers-George Kittle Minnesota-Vikings-Jaleel Johnson
Former Hawkeyes Desmond King, LeShun Daniels, Jaleel Johnson and George Kittle talk with young athletes at the Legends of Iowa Football Camp in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Scott Dochterman/Land of 10)
King (5-10, 201) was one of Iowa’s most decorated football players. He was a consensus All-American in 2015 when he won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back. At Iowa, King started a school-record 51 games and played in two others. He intercepted 14 passes to tie for fourth in school history. In 2015, King tied a school record with 8 interceptions in 2015 and also tied the Iowa career mark by returning 3 interceptions for touchdowns in his career.
With those accolades, King was considered a potential first-round or second-round draft pick. It was a surprise when he slipped to the fifth round.
“It was pretty challenging knowing that the expectation that you thought was going to happen didn’t happen the way you wanted it,” King said. “But at the same time, you’ve got to stay humble, stay calm and just blessed when you get the opportunity.
“I feel like I have something to go out there and actually kind of play for, and that’s my goal. To go out there and win a starting spot and get on the field as soon as I can and just help the team.”
King’s versatility should vault him into immediate playing time at nickel and free safety. He worked at both positions during the spring. Unlike at Iowa — which primarily runs a base defense — NFL clubs use five defensive backs about 75 percent of their plays.
Both players will compete for two of the NFL’s best defensive coaches. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer was a defensive coordinator for 14 years before taking over at Minnesota in 2014. Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley held the same position in Seattle until 2012 and was head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2013 until late last season.
“[Zimmer is] a defensive guru,” Johnson said. “He knows the ins and outs of the defense and that’s kind of scary, all the stuff that he knows. Having him as the coach is definitely an advantage because he’s the one who puts us in the right position to win.”
“I think Coach Bradley is a terrific coach,” King said. “Bringing the strategy and the defensive plays to our defense, it kind of fits in perfect with the skill sets that we have. We have very quick, tenacious players on the team that are ready to attack. The defense that he plays is great for us.”
Johnson heads to a squad known for selecting Iowa players. Former Hawkeyes excelling with the Vikings include Hall of Fame safety Paul Krause, longtime linebacker Wally Hilgenberg and, most recently, linebacker Chad Greenway, who retired in March after 11 seasons. Greenway, a second-team All-American at Iowa in 2004 and 2005, ranks fourth in Minnesota history with 1,334 tackles.
“I’ve heard some talks about it,” Johnson said about the Iowa legacy with the Vikings. “It’s one thing to talk about it; it’s another thing to go out and do it.”
King will compete for a franchise relocating from San Diego to Los Angeles. The Chargers’ spring workouts took place in San Diego — their home for the last 56 years — but their fall camp and games shift to Los Angeles.
“I was in an Uber one time [in San Diego], and I asked the Uber driver [about the move],” King said. “He was a big Chargers fan. He said they were very disappointed about it. But they have to do what they have to do.”
Other current NFL players joining King and Johnson at the camp were George Kittle (6-4, 247) and LeShun Daniels (6-0, 225). Kittle, a fifth-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers, has seen first-team reps at tight end this spring. Daniels, a running back, signed as a free agent with the New England Patriots.