Projected by many to be battling for a roster spot, could Johnson actually end up starting for KC?
The Kansas City Chiefs aggressively retooled their cornerback room this offseason. It started when they let long-time starter Charvarius Ward walk in free agency, then continued when they traded up in the first round for Washington’s Trent McDuffie before selecting two more cornerbacks on Day Three of the 2022 NFL Draft. The Chiefs weren’t done there, though. A few days after the draft, Kansas City also traded for former Houston Texans cornerback Lonnie Johnson Jr.
Johnson was picked in the second round back in 2019. He was drafted as a cornerback and mostly played there as a rookie. In his sophomore season, the Texans moved him to safety and carried that experiment into his third year. Towards the end of that season, however, Johnson was moved back to his natural position. His career has not gone as expected to this point. When the Chiefs traded for him, he was largely seen as depth or a fringe roster player. Can he turn out to be more than that?
In 2021, Johnson was graded as one of the worst defenders in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. Though it looks terrible on paper, he was playing out of position for most of the year. After he switched back to cornerback, he posted a grade over 65.0 in three of five games. According to PFF, Johnson’s best game of the year came in Week 18 against the Tennesee Titans with a grade of 77.8. In that outing, Johnson made several plays that caught my eye.
The Texans are playing Cover-2 here, and Johnson is asked to cover the flat. He does a good job passing off the receiver to the safety while keeping his eyes on the quarterback and the ball. The Titans are running a bootleg, and Johnson recognizes it to limit the gain. Not only does he show his recognition ability, but also his willingness to tackle.
Physical cornerbacks are something that Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo covets. He asks them to be willing to tackle in open space and come down to help run support. We have seen Spagnuolo use L’Jarius Sneed, Rashad Fenton and others off the edge to assist in the run game. As a willing tackler, Johnson can do this in the Chiefs’ system.
During the pre-draft process, Johnson ran a 4.52-second 40-yard dash. That doesn’t reflect someone who is a burner at the cornerback position but on film, Johnson’s ability to carry receivers down the field pops. Additionally, Johnson did test exceptionally well in the vertical and broad jumps, showing off his elite explosiveness. Both of these attributes are put on display during this play.
Here, Houston is running Cover-3 with Johnson responsible for the deep third of the field. The Jacksonville Jaguars run four verticals with two receivers entering Johnson’s zone. He does an excellent job of carrying both of them down the field while staying in between them so he can get to wherever the quarterback decides to throw the ball. The quarterback chooses to throw it to the outside receiver. Johnson has to recover and once it looks like the ball is over his head, he leaps and uses his length to break up the touchdown.
Perhaps the most interesting Johnson game was against the Seattle Seahawks. For this contest, the Seahawks had two good receivers and now-Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson. Johnson saw no action during the first half of the game, but that all changed after halftime. The Texans had him traveling with DK Metcalf in the second half.
On third down, Johnson plays off-coverage against Metcalf. This allows him to have the underneath area of the field. Once Metcalf gets into his break, Johnson recognizes it and attacks the passing lane, forcing Wilson to throw an inaccurate ball which leads to an incompletion.
Johnson had a similar play on another third down later in the game. Metcalf looks like he is running a deep curl, but Wilson already broke the pocket when he got out of his break. Metcalf tries to work back to the sideline to give Wilson a throwing lane, but Johnson sticks with Metcalf throughout the scramble drill. He creates a tough throw with his presence and helps the Texans get off the field.
At times in this game, Metcalf was visibly upset and directed his anger toward Johnson. This isn’t to say that Johnson played a perfect game, but he certainly made himself known against one of the top receivers in the league.
There are numerous things to be curious about regarding Johnson’s fit with the Chiefs. First, the Texans primarily ran zone coverage. He will undoubtedly be asked to play more man coverage and cover receivers one-on-one now. Also, the Chiefs ask their cornerbacks to press receivers at the line of scrimmage. Johnson didn’t do this with the Texans in 2021, though he very well may be capable of playing press coverage. He has natural size and is willing to be physical. With his 6’2″ frame and 32.5-inch arms, it should make it easier for him to press receivers and prevent them from getting free releases.
The Chiefs have four cornerbacks who are new to the team, with three of them being rookies and the other being Johnson. Having NFL experience should be an edge for Johnson during training camp and the early part of the season. The hope for Kansas City is that McDuffie can be on the field from the jump but if not, don’t be surprised if Johnson is a starting boundary corner in Week One.