By Michael Fitzpatrick
When the Chicago Bears made the move to release All-Pro cornerback Kyle Fuller to get some salary-cap relief, it put the weight of the Bears’ secondary on the shoulders of Jaylon Johnson. Ironically, the success of Johnson as CB1 largely depends on his shoulders and their health.
Johnson had surgery on both shoulders during his collegiate career at Utah and missed the final four games of last season because of a shoulder ailment. To quote Bill Parcells, “the best ability is availability.” If missing time is going to be a chronic issue for Johnson, it’s going to be hard for the Bears to count on him to be their top corner going forward.
The good news is that when Johnson was on the field in 2020 he was outstanding. His 15 pass breakups were the most among rookies and good for ninth-most in the NFL. As a rookie corner playing opposite an All-Pro it makes sense that Johnson was targeted frequently. Opposing quarterbacks threw his way 72 times, 38th most in the league; he allowed 41 of those targets to be caught. That’s a 56.4 completion percentage against, which may seem high, but when compared to some of the established, elite corners in the game, Johnson wasn’t far off the pace.
- Jalen Ramsey: 50.7%
- Marshon Lattimore: 52.9%
- Kyle Fuller: 55.4%
- Jaylon Johnson: 56.4%
- Stephon Gilmore: 57.1%
- Byron Jones: 60.3%
Johnson had the fifth-best ballhawk rate in the league, according to the NFL’s Next Gen stats; ballhawk rate is determined by the number of pass breakups and interceptions a player had as the nearest coverage defender divided by the total number of targets as the nearest coverage defender. According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson was the fifth-best rookie corner in man coverage since 2016 and had the highest rate of forced incompletions of any rookie in that same span. Johnson showed an impressive willingness to stick his nose in there and make tackles as well. Young corners sometimes struggle with the physicality of the NFL, but Johnson met it head-on. With NFL offenses being all about speed and space now, having a corner who can make one-on-one tackles is a necessity.
Johnson’s biggest struggles in coverage came on passes down the field, as his 15.8 yards per reception allowed shows. Where his aggressiveness allowed him to be a force on underneath routes and tackling, it got him into trouble sometimes when defending vertical routes. He got called for pass interference three times in 2020, costing the Bears a total of 71 yards. He had trouble finding the ball at times, so even if he was in good position, he couldn’t make a play on the ball.
If Johnson stays healthy, he can absolutely be a dominant CB1. A lot of the areas where he struggled on the field in 2020 were likely a product of him being a rookie and still trying to figure out when to pick his spots to be aggressive. He didn’t have a regular offseason last year, either. Now that he has a full season and what is shaping up to be a relatively traditional offseason under his belt, Johnson seems poised to make the leap to stardom. The only thing in his way is his own health.