As an outsider looking in, you might wonder: why is the announcement of the Senior Bowl rosters such a big deal that there was an entire show dedicated to just that?
Well, for those of us looking to scout the event, it’s like when you let your dog out in the morning; so excited to get out and live the day, their tail thumping the side of their crate. Once we get the list of names, we can start ripping through the film of these players — many of whom NFL teams lobbied to see in Mobile — and predict who’s going to make a name for themselves that fateful week.
For my money, Isaiah Johnson is going to garner some fans. More than a few, as a matter of fact — you can’t be 6-foot-2, a shade under 200 pounds, and super fast and not get attention at cornerback. Johnson’s physical traits are the most attractive aspects of his evaluation, and he uses his length and fluidity well to affect the catch point and win from a recovery position.
Arizona runs the Ghost Screen look here, and Johnson rightfully plays downfield into it. But once his responsibility releases through the first level, Johnson is quick to get his hips upfield, burst back underneath the route, and attack the throw, which was left a little short to avoid the closing safety. That great usage of his physical tools there, and illustrates the sort of impact plays that Johnson can make.
Most corners, even if they are quick and heady enough to get back to that play don’t have the length to make it. Johnson is physically gifted — there’s no two ways about it.
Johnson does have a receiver background — that’s where he played his first three years with the Cougars — which helps explain why a player of such size ended up in the defensive backfield. Though he is an ex-WR, I found Johnson’s ball skills a bit lack on the tape that I watched. I expected him to have more of an alpha approach to the football when it was in the air, and better instincts for when the pass might arrive — you’d think he’d feel it, like a wide receiver.
Too often however, Johnson was caught in a trail position and was unable to get his head around into the catch point.
Switch releases like this can present problems to aggressive corners lined up in the press, as you see Johnson here. The first thing to note is the false step with his left foot — it’s into the line of scrimmage, as he is expecting an outside release and looking to generate contact. Johnson’s foot technique is sushi raw right now, which is expected given his limited time playing the position. However, with his long strides, every false step takes up that more much space and that much more time. You’d like to see him play with a bit more patience, willing to stay square to the line of scrimmage and only open his hips once the receiver declares a directional release.
His hips flip quickly, which is a great recovery trait to see, and helps him get into phase across the slant portion of this sluggo (slant-and-go) route. But as the receiver breaks upfield, you can see Johnson slow his pace and turn his eyes back to the quarterback. Despite the fact that the receiver gave no indication he was looking for a throw, Johnson is expecting the slant and initiates contact, looking for the football — this allows the receiver to burn buy him and put Johnson in a trail position.
From there, Johnson starts grabbing and abandons the throw entirely. It’s again left a little short because of the closing safety, and Johnson could have played on it — but he is late to turn his head and locate it, and the pass is completed.
This play well illustrates the areas Johnson must clean up to become a true press-man corner: foot discipline and patience; grabbiness down the field; ball skills and catch point contesting. There are flashes of stellar play here, in which Johnson remains patient at the line, allowing his size and speed to do the talking.
I really like this rep, even though Johnson never really lands that customary press “punch” at the line of scrimmage. He is patient at the line and doesn’t lose his balance (though he does rock back on his heels a bit, and must be careful not to get punched himself by his opponent), quickly turns to get in phase downfield, and steers his opponent into the sideline with an off-hand punch in the contact window.
Look at how suffocating that coverage is — very little space for a back-shoulder or downfield attempt. In a bad position to make a play on the football, Johnson gets away with a bit of a grab here, but generally won the coverage rep from snap to whistle.
Plays like this — in a vertical third, dealing with downfield stems — show why Johnson is the prototype for the Seattle Cover 3 corner. I liken his coverage ability to that of Ahkello Witherspoon, the Colorado corner who was taken early in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers. A fit for Robert Saleh’s defense because of his physical similarities to Richard Sherman, Witherspoon won at the line and at the catch point with a rare blend of length, fluidity, and speed. Johnson also checks that elevated box, and is a snug fit in the Cover 3 kick-step/press mold that was popularized by Sherman in the Legion of Boom’s heyday. Sherman, incidentally, was also a college WR-to-CB convert.
Johnson needs technical advancements however — more so than Witherspoon ever did. He should not be relied upon to start in Year 1, but rather in Year 2 or 3, depending on his developmental track. At the Senior Bowl, Johnson will have an opportunity to prove to coaches that he can take to teaching well on the practice field, and will be worthy of a long-term investment as a future starter in the NFL.