Jaylon Johnson Island: "Covering The Best Wide Receiver Is What I Do"

Photo: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS — The 2020 NFL Draft class has as much top-end talent and depth than any cycle we’ve seen in years, and the positional group that embodies that this year is at cornerback. 

From Ohio State’s Jeffrey Okudah to Alabama’s Trevon Diggs, many in the scouting community believe there could be five to six cornerbacks drafted in the first round, and that number could balloon up to double digits by the end of the second round.

However, there is one cornerback that has been forgotten in this loaded class, and that is Utah’s Jaylon Johnson. At 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, he started all three years for the Utes, racking up seven interceptions, 21 pass deflections and two touchdowns throughout his career, but his box score numbers don’t tell the complete story of who Johnson is as a cornerback prospect.

I was admittedly lower on Johnson heading into the 2019 season because of his lack of efficiency against top competition, but that completely flipped this year when he shut down just about everyone. Look no further than his performances against two of the top wide receiver prospects in this draft: Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk and Oregon State’s Isaiah Hodgins.

Aiyuk was coming off two monster performances — seven catches for 196 yards and three touchdowns against Washington State and nine catches for 122 yards and one touchdown against Colorado – before facing Utah. Because Johnson can match Aiyuk’s explosion and burst in space, he wasn’t able to separate or create much wiggle room on his routes. The end result? One catch for seven yards. The week before against Hodgins and Oregon State, Johnson did the same thing. Shutting down a wide receiver who put up 20 catches for 285 yards and five touchdowns the previous two games. If that wasn’t enough, Johnson made one of the biggest plays of Utah’s season just two weeks later against Washington with an interception for a touchdown.

It was the kind of lights-out season that wasn’t appreciated enough, and it’s a shame that Utah just missed out on the College Football Playoff because Johnson’s national notoriety would have been amplified to another level. Now at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine after forgoing his senior season, Johnson said he believes he is the best cornerback in this draft because of that production as a shutdown player on the boundary.

“I went up against the best guys, it’s not something I shy away from,” he said Friday. “I covered the No. 1 receiver in every game I played in. I don’t recall too many other people doing that so I just know that I can go out and cover the best guys. I did that game after game and week after week, so I don’t think man coverage ability is in question.”

Johnson went on to mention that he expects to run in the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds Sunday when the defensive backs take the field. At the same time, he said he prides himself more on his man coverage discipline as opposed to his athleticism.

Despite being slightly undersized, Johnson was one of the best press man cornerbacks I studied in this class for that reason, and his ability to stay patient is what separates him from the players who have better lengths at the line of scrimmage.

“Everything for me is all about eyes,” Johnson said. “You can have bad eyes and never win despite anything else, but if you have good eyes, that gives you an opportunity to be in a position to make plays on the ball.”

There aren’t many cornerbacks in this class that have better pure ball skills than Johnson. He plays a physical, aggressive brand of football but he also has the feet to mirror and stick on the wide receiver’s hip pocket with little difficulty. When you combine his ability to make plays on the ball with that man coverage efficiency, that’s how you find a difference-maker on the field.

He said that blend is just another reason why he believes he should be considered in every top-tier cornerback discussion leading up to April’s draft.

“For me, it is big to have ball production, whether it’s PBUs or interceptions because you can be in good coverage but still have the ball caught on you, so just being able to finish plays was really important to me coming into college and stopping the receiver from catching the ball as much as possible,” Johnson added.

I’ve received a lot of flack in recent weeks for ranking Johnson as high as I have — the fourth cornerback and top-30 overall player on my big board — but with his production on an island in man coverage from both the off and press alignments, as well as his playmaking potential to get his hands on the ball when targeted, I’m all in on his projection to the NFL as a starting cornerback. I would have no problem drafting him in the first round, and if he runs as well as he said he will, I think his status as an under-the-radar prospect will shift towards where I currently see him.