Pats activate first International Pathway player

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Fullback Jakob Johnson became the first player to enter the NFL through the International Pathway Program to make a 53-man roster when he was promoted from the New England Patriots' practice squad on Saturday.

The International Player Pathway Program was instituted in 2017 and aims to provide international athletes the opportunity to compete at the NFL level, improve their skills and, ultimately, earn a spot on an NFL roster.

Johnson was born in Stuttgart, Germany, and played in 47 games at the University of Tennessee, initially as a linebacker before switching to tight end. In 2018, he appeared in 12 games for the Stuttgart Scorpions of the German Football League.

The Patriots were assigned Johnson as part of the International Pathway Program on April 8. The three other teams in the AFC East were also assigned players as part of a random draw, and none of them counted against the 90-man roster limit.

In 2018, Efe Obada became the first player from the International Pathway Program to make a 53-man roster with the Carolina Panthers, but he didn't initially enter the NFL through the program. He had signed as a free agent with the Cowboys in 2015 after playing only five games of amateur football with the London Warriors, then was on the Cowboys' practice squad before spending time in the 2016 offseason with the Chiefs and Falcons. In 2017, Obada was part of the first class of players in the International Pathway Program, which gave him additional time to develop with the Panthers.

During the season, teams can carry an International Pathway Program player as an extra 11th member of the practice squad, but because of the roster exemption, the clubs could not promote the player to the active roster during the season. In the case of Johnson, the Patriots elected to forgo that option and make him a regular member of their 10-man practice squad, which gave them the option of promoting him.

"Jak came in with a great attitude this offseason," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said a few weeks ago. "He really put his head down and worked hard through our offseason program, and then continued to do that in OTAs and into training camp -- good attitude. He's been out there every day, toughness, willing to do the things that you need to do to play that position on offense, smart kid, studies hard, prepares well, knows what to do and is ready to go. And he's competitive, so I think there's nothing more you can ask of each player than to give your best and be ready to go when your number's called."

The 6-foot-3, 255-pound Johnson steps in for injured starter James Develin, who has already been ruled out for Sunday's game against the New York Jets with a neck injury.

The Patriots are one of the few teams in the NFL that still features the fullback, as Develin has played 41.5% of the offensive snaps through the first two weeks of the season. Develin also has an important role on the team's punt coverage unit, which Johnson could also fill.