The Chicago Bears began the 2021 season with major question marks in the secondary. Longtime leader and former Pro Bowler, Kyle Fuller, was released, and the only notable transaction general manager Ryan Pace made to replace him was the free-agent signing of veteran Desmond Trufant.
Trufant, for reasons that extend beyond the football field, didn’t make the Bears’ final roster.
Trufant’s unexpected release left Chicago without a veteran leader at cornerback, forcing second-year starter Jaylon Johnson with the obligation to step up and be the alpha among his coverage teammates. Through two games this season, he’s excelled in that role.
Johnson was the Bears’ highest-graded defender against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 2, per Pro Football Focus, with a 92.2 score and now has the second-highest grade among all cornerbacks in the NFL through two games (87.0).
It’s early, but it certainly feels like Johnson is enjoying the kind of breakout season the Bears need from him in order to salvage a cornerback room that otherwise includes the likes of Kindle Vildor, Duke Shelley, Artie Burns, and Xavier Crawford.
Johnson’s success in the NFL isn’t all that surprising. The 2020 second-round pick was a fantastic blend of size, length, physicality, and athleticism as a prospect out of Utah, but his medical red flags (shoulder) turned him from a first-round player into a day-two bargain.
The Bears are reaping the rewards of Johnson’s unfortunate draft-day fall. Those rewards will become even more bountiful if Johnson goes on an interception run.
“Just reading my keys,” Johnson said of his first career interception in Week 2. “I mean, (Joe) Burrow stared him down pretty much the whole time. Just trusting my instincts, trusting my training, my ability, that was it pretty much. Just my God-given ability to read plays and break on it and finish.”
The Bears are trusting Johnson’s God-given ability, too. In some ways, they have no choice. If Johnson fails, the rest of the secondary fails with him. It’s an indictment of general manager Ryan Pace and his failure to build quality depth with a mix of veterans and ascending talent, whether it be through free agency or the draft.
Pace’s gamble has paid off—sort of. Chicago’s defensive performance against the Los Angeles Rams in the opener was embarrassing largely because of the lapses in coverage. But Johnson gives the entire group hope. Whether he continues to climb the ranks of NFL cornerbacks throughout the 2021 season remains to be seen.
Johnson said after the Bears’ Week 2 victory that it was great to have the fans back at Soldier Field. He said that during the game, he and his defensive teammates wanted Bears fans to “keep pushing” and “keep bringing the juice.”
Bears fans need Johnson to do the same.