Coming off of one of the best seasons for a cornerback in Utah Utes history with first-team All Pac 12 honors and four interceptions, Jaylon Johnson was immediately thrust into the 2020 NFL draft conversation as a true junior.
But when I went back and watched his tape as a sophomore, I came away thinking the hype he received was box-score driven. He had a couple of flash plays here and there, but his inconsistency in man coverage was evident throughout the season, whether that was reading and recognizing routes a step late, or simply playing too aggressive and out of control. The athleticism and ball skills stood out immediately, but it was the lack of nuance in his game as a sophomore that made me believe his projection to the next level did not match his 2018 production.
However, seven games through his junior campaign, my mindset on Johnson has completely flipped.
My narrative on Johnson last year was that his lack of man coverage consistency was masked by the fact that he had four interceptions. Johnson hasn’t had quite the amount of ball production this year – only one interception – but he looks much more controlled and confident on an island as a junior. One of the biggest issues I had with Johnson’s 2018 tape was that his timed speed didn’t match his play speed. Despite being a legitimate 4.4 athlete, he was often a step late reading and recognizing routes in man coverage, which led to several plays on film where receivers got significant separation. But Johnson looks like a different player this year. He’s evolved from a natural playmaker to a legit shutdown cornerback in his junior season.
Johnson’s last two games – Oregon State and Arizona State – were clearly his biggest tests of the season. He faced two of the top three wide receivers in the PAC 12 in those matchups – Isaiah Hodgins and Brandon Aiyuk, both of whom were riding hot streaks with three-touchdown performances the previous week. Utah won both of those games easily, and it was mostly due to the performance of their star cornerback. He shut both Hodgins and Aiyuk down, holding both to their season lows in receiving yards to that point. As you can see here on this play against Hodgins, Johnson has vastly improved his back-to-ball reliability. Most of his plays made in 2018 were with him attacking forward, so it’s really encouraging to see him disrupt the catch point like this as a junior.
More than anything else, we’re starting to see a much more controlled and confident version of Jaylon Johnson in 2019. Too many times as a sophomore, he would bite on everything and take himself out of position for no reason. Now, he’s found a balance of reading routes quicker, while also playing more patient at the LOS. Johnson has all the athleticism you could want in a cornerback, and as a junior, he’s starting to finally trust his athleticism and reactionary quickness to break on routes cleaner, instead of trying to guess. The cornerbacks who need to guess to make a play are the ones who cannot move or react on a dime. They need that extra advantage as a gambler. This is why you see big, tall cornerbacks make a lot of plays underneath, but get burned deep on double moves. This year, Johnson has realized that he doesn’t need to take those unnecessary risks in man coverage.
As a result, he’s traded his interception numbers for better overall tape, and so far this season, there are only a select amount of cornerbacks that have been better at putting the clamps on wide receivers than Jaylon Johnson. In my preseason top 100 big board, I had Johnson slotted as a late Day 2/early Day 3 selection at 110 overall. However, his performance this season has me confident that he’s turned a corner in regards to his next-level projection. His 2019 tape is why he’ll be a top five cornerback in this class, and a potential first-round option next April.