When NFL Network host Steve Wyche asked former Utah cornerback Jaylon Johnson what receiver he was looking forward to guarding most, Johnson took a second to think about it and then had an answer.
“Davante Adams from Green Bay,” Johnson said.
Four days after the interview aired on NFL Network, the Bears drafted Johnson with the 50th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Johnson will now get two opportunities for the next few seasons to go against Adams, and their first matchup will be in Week 12 at Lambeau Field on Sunday Night Football.
Sharrieff Shah, Johnson’s cornerbacks coach at Utah, didn’t find it surprising that his former player selected Adams.
“He [Johnson] identified Adams because that is just one of the top receivers in the game …,” Shah said. “If you’re going to be one of the best DBs, then congratulations baby, Merry Christmas, here is your gift, now open it up, defend it, play it every single day and let’s go. That’s what he will have to do. I expected him to say things like that because that is just who he is.”
Shah recruited Johnson out of high school and came close to landing his brother, Johnny, who ended up playing at UCLA and Fresno State. Johnson’s desire to face the toughest competition, according to Shah, started when he began competing against his brother.
“Champ [Johnny’s nickname] pushed him harder than anybody,” Shah said. “Champ pushed him over and over and over, and he never wanted to live in his brother’s shadow. He wanted to be his own man. Didn’t want to live in his daddy’s shadow. [He] wanted to develop his own path, so he worked. He worked when nobody was looking. He did things that people recommended when nobody else would do them. That was just a quality that innately he was blessed with. I identified it and just pushed on it.”
At Utah, Johnson coveted going up against the opposing team’s No. 1 wide receiver, and for Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, this made it simple for him to use Johnson in his defense.
“We tried to put him up against the best wide receiver every single time,” Scalley said. “When the circumstance dictated it and we were able to do it, he was against their best wideout the majority of the time.”
In 2019, Johnson faced numerous wide receivers who would eventually go on to either be drafted or signed as undrafted free agents for the 2020 NFL season.
Here is how Johnson did in coverage for the entire 2019 season.
Jaylon Johnson's 2019 coverage stats:
— PFF CHI Bears (@PFF_Bears) April 25, 2020
There is no doubt that Johnson left his mark on the Utes’ football program. The 2019 All-American ended his career with seven interceptions, 28 passes defended and two pick-sixes, and Shah said that he “has not coached anybody better yet” at the position.
Unfortunately, the game has also left a mark on Johnson.
Throughout his football career, Johnson has had three surgeries on his shoulders, and his most recent surgery took place in March to repair a torn right labrum that Johnson played with for most of the 2019 season.
Johnson’s past surgeries may have deterred some teams from selecting him earlier in the draft, but Shah believes those teams perceived his shoulders to be worse than they actually were.
“If that shoulder was a legitimate concern, it would have stopped him from playing,” Shah said. “He wouldn’t have been as productive. He couldn’t have got the PBUs, the interceptions that he would have been able to get if the shoulder really would have been an issue.”
Despite the shoulder injuries, they never stopped Johnson from making an impact on the football field. A reason for that is because of his devotion to understand every players’ responsibilities on the defense.
He also became a “film junkie,” and Shah said that Johnson “made so many good plays because of his ability to deduce what was happening increased rapidly.”
One of the plays that stood out to Shah was the one against Oregon State wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins. In the clip below, Shah elaborated on what Johnson did well to force the incomplete pass.
In my one-on-one interview with Utah cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah, he said #Bears CB Jaylon Johnson's pass breakup against Isaiah Hodgins was the play that stood out the most to him. Listen as Shah breaks down the play.
— Nicholas Moreano (@NicholasMoreano) May 12, 2020
For Scalley, the play that stood out to him was the one “that kept us [Utah] in the Pac-12 title race.”
With No. 9 ranked Utah down 21-13 to Washington with 3:06 remaining in the third quarter, Johnson anticipated quarterback Jacob Eason’s pass and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown.
“We were bringing a zero pressure, it was man-to-man coverage, he is on an island,” Scalley said. “He is playing off man. He knows the comeback is coming because he has studied it. He jumps the route, the pick-six, and we’re back in the game, and the tide kind of turned in our favor in that game. That would be the one play that kind of defined his career in my opinion.”
Johnson’s success at Utah is evident, but what should fans expect to see from the rookie in 2020?
Below is a chart that displays the average statistics that a cornerback drafted in the first two rounds produces in their rookie season. The data represents the 80 cornerbacks (39 first rounders and 41 second rounders) drafted in the past 10 years, dating back to the 2009 draft. Only 77 were included in the chart because three cornerbacks did not play at all during their rookie season.
Check out the full list of players here.
One of the largest disparities between first- and second-round CBs came in the number of games started. Although the data illustrates Johnson may not start as many games in his rookie season like his fellow draftees in the first round, he should still be primed to be a key contributor for defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano’s defense.
With Prince Amukamara no longer on the team, Johnson will get the first opportunity to start, but he will have to compete with Kevin Toliver, Tre Roberson and Artie Burns for the job. However, once the Bears begin camp, Johnson should separate himself from the group.
The 6-foot, 196-pound cornerback shouldn’t just be seen as a mere replacement for Amukamara but instead as a fundamental building block for the defense moving forward. In the last 10 years, Chicago has drafted two cornerbacks in the first two rounds: Johnson and Kyle Fuller in 2014. The Bears’ organization will be hoping that Johnson can have a career trajectory similar to Fuller’s.
Johnson is already set up to succeed since he will begin his career on a defense that is far superior to the one Fuller started on in 2014. Despite the Bears’ defense regressing last season, the unit still finished in the top 10. General manger Ryan Pace revamped the pass rush by replacing Leonard Floyd with Robert Quinn, and this should create more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, which will give Johnson and the rest of the secondary more opportunities to make plays.
Johnson may be a rookie, but Shah knows the veterans on the Bears’ defense will respect how he approaches the game and the mindset he will bring to Chicago.
“He was always a consummate professional even when he was in college …,” Shah said. “What the folks on that defense will appreciate is that he is always prepared … He is going to be ready to go.”