(Featured image via cbssports from USATSI)
With the NFL being a pass heavy league that enables offenses to easily replicate wide receiver production, quality cornerbacks that can survive, let alone thrive, in today’s NFL are tough to come by. The position has become one of the most coveted in the NFL Draft for that reason. Receivers are replaceable and cornerbacks are not, so if teams see the opportunity to snag a quality cornerback, they take it.
A lot of times, cornerbacks even get overdrafted due to supply and demand, a la Justin Gilbert just a year ago. In that same draft, 2014, four other cornerbacks went in the first round. Granted, last year’s class was an oddly talented cornerback class, but this year’s class should see at least three cornerbacks go in the first round, and Wake Forest’s Kevin Johnson should be one of them.
Before diving into Johnson’s film, it’s worth taking the time to look over his measurables. For a lot of the year, Johnson played at somewhere in the 170-180 pound range at 6’0″. Playing at that low of a weight for his height was a bit concerning, but he weighed in at 188 pounds at the combine. That is still a tad slight, but assuming he can keep the weight on and play as he did before, 188 pounds is enough for him. Another factor that may push some teams and analysts away is his arm length and hand size. With 31″ arms and 8″ 3/8″ hands, he will be entirely taken off of some teams boards. To some extent, this is fair. Teams have prototypes and that is understandable. Though, I have yet to see an instance where those two factors did much to negatively affect his game.
Johnson’s test numbers are weird, to say the least. In the 40-yard dash (4.52), 10-yard split (1.60) and 60-yard shuttle (12.19), Johnson finished in the 38th percentile or lower, including him placing in the 2nd percentile for the 60-yard shuttle. With disappointing numbers in all of these areas, one may suggest that Johnson’s ability to keep up down the field should be in question and that is fair. Though, on the flip side, Johnson was in at least the 94th percentile for the broad jump (130″), vertical jump (41″ 1/2″) and 20-yard shuttle (3.89). On top of that, his 3-cone drill time (6.79) scored in the 73rd percentile, which is certainly respectable. (Shout out to MockDraftable for providing combine numbers and percentiles.)
Without watching a single snap of Johnson, one could conclude that Johnson is a middling straight-line athlete, but that his explosion and flexibility are outstanding. One may assume that his breaks and burst are going to help him win, especially in tight areas, but that if teams try to beat him vertically, he may struggle.
While there may be instances of Johnson being beat over the top, those plays are more often related to a different issue than his athleticism. The numbers make it seem like Johnson shouldn’t win down the field or in large spaces, but his burst and acceleration- both evident in his Combine numbers- as well as his natural instincts- help mask his raw north/south speed very well, making him a player that can win at all levels of the field.
Just as his Combine performance would suggest, Johnson absolutely dominates in short areas, both as a coverage player and as a run defender. Johnson, especially at his slight frame, was not the stoutest of run defenders, but he understands that and finds ways to get around that issue. Partly due to his previously mentioned instincts, Johnson often shows up before the blocker is supposed to, allowing him to make a play relatively uncontested. His Clemson game summarized said ability.
In each of these plays, Johnson reads the flow of the play quickly and reacts to it. With his heightened level of burst and acceleration, Johnson gets to the ball carrier before he can truly be contested. Cornerbacks with his sense of urgency in the run game are not too common and that alone may bump him up on a few teams’ boards, especially zone-heavy teams. Big, physical receivers that can beat Johnson to his spot will be able to take him out of most plays, but getting there before Johnson will be quite a task and the wiry cornerback will be a trouble to contain in space.
More importantly, Johnson’s short area athleticism translates well to his coverage ability and is a large factor to his success. People will get hung up on his 40-yard dash, but really, much more of a cornerbacks success can be related to how they handle short areas, both in covering small spaces and when trying to keep up with a moving receiver. Johnson thrives in both areas.
Johnson is a menace when playing in shorter zones. Some of this can be credited to how well he can read the flow of a play, as mentioned before, but even the smartest players need the athleticism to make the play work, and Johnson certainly does. The most intriguing part about this is that he may be even better in these areas than he appeared to be on film.
At Wake Forest, Johnson was quite often asked to play very soft off-coverage, leaving a lot of room between he and the receiver. This gives him an extra cushion deep, but exposes him in the short game. There were a number of instances where Johnson appeared to make a jump on the play as soon as he possibly could have, but was already so far down the field that it did not matter- other than him being able to restrict yards after the catch.
In this play vs Florida State, Johnson looks to have gave up a critical pass, but take context into account. Time is winding down before the half and teams typically like to take shots with so little time left. Johnson is asked to play a soft deep 1/3 to ensure that Jameis Winston does not complete a deep throw to surely get them in scoring position. Even though he pounces on this play as soon as the receiver makes his break, Johnson is naturally much too far away from this throw to do anything, and that really is not his fault.
Had Johnson been asked to play a bit closer to the receiver and shorten the area in which he had to cover to defend curls/comebacks/slants/etc., it is likely that he would have been more disruptive than he was. Though, scheme aside, Johnson is evidently athletic on film and he was still able to make a number of plays that required top notch athleticism and vision/awareness.
There is no hesitation or wasted movement to Johnson’s game. He sees plays developing and makes his move quickly and efficiently. On the first play, Johnson does not step in front of the receiver before the quarterback throws the ball. He lets the quarterback commit, then takes his path to the ball. Johnson gets there with time to spare- interception.
The second play is almost more exciting because he was put in a rare tight man-to-man situation. Johnson does not commit to any of the receiver’s moves until his final comeback. Johnson is already glued to the receiver and his short, efficient steps, coupled with his explosion, allow him to shut this throw down.
Johnson is going to make his money playing in short zones like this, but his ability down the field, though a bit raw, shows definite promise. As discussed before, the concerns over Johnson’s raw north/south speed can be almost nullified by how quickly he sees plays develop and how explosive he is when accelerating. His speed alone seldom loses him deep plays. If anything is going to give him trouble, it is his tendency to peek into the backfield.
This kind of gambling mentality can certainly work; Asante Samuel made a career out of it. More often than not, it does work for Johnson, but there are times where he gets too anxious to make a play and ends up being the catalyst for a negative play.
Johnson makes the mistake of assuming that because two players are coming off the same side of the backfield, that is where the ball is going. One of the two players turns up field, catching Johnson off guard. Johnson tries to recover, but he is well beat, even on a poor throw.
Great cornerbacks come to learn the balance between playing the receiver and playing the quarterback when in zone coverage. Here, Johnson loses sight of that balance and nearly gives up a touchdown. Just as the receiver stutter steps, Johnson takes his eyes away from the receiver and relocates them to the quarterback, hoping he can get an early jump on the throw. Instead, the receiver begins heading up the field again and Johnson is completely unprepared. He panics and leaps at the receiver, wrapping around his waist and garnering a well deserved penalty.
The thing is, these plays are likely to be a common theme throughout Johnson’s career. He is an aggressive cornerback; he is a gambler. Though, there should be little concern over it considering how consistent he is in most every other area of his game, on top of the fact that his gambling tends to work out a good percentage of the time. In a more conventional down field scenario, where Johnson is not playing over zealously, he is a sound player, even if he gets a tad grabby.
Johnson is a very smooth player whose transitions and redirection are impressive. When playing in a deep third, he has the instincts, flexibility and acceleration to keep up with receivers and put himself in position to make a play.
Johnson gets a tad physical on the latter two examples, but does not do so to a fault and he is still easily in position to make a play (does in the middle GIF) unless the throw is perfect. In all three plays, Johnson changes direction with fluidity and keeps himself tight to the receiver. If a receiver could get Johnson to false step, there is a good chance Johnson may lose the snap because his long speed is uninspiring, but the likelihood of Johnson making a mistake like that is low. He is a very economic player that keeps himself in ideal position to make a play at any time.
No matter how good his coverage is, there will always be passes thrown his way, and that is where Johnson’s ball skills become a factor. This is the most troubling aspect of his game. If he locates the ball early, Johnson is an aggressive player that will do his best to reach and punch the ball out. Though, if he is forced to locate the ball later in the route, Johnson tends to lean toward playing the receiver instead of the ball. Granted, he does this very well by making sure to attack the receivers’ arms at the right time, but regardless of that, not being able to locate the ball well on every snap (or close to it) will cause him some fits with NFL receivers who track the ball well, like a Mike Evans.
For the most part, Kevin Johnson is a clean prospect. His athleticism is top notch, despite being a bit sub-par in the long speed drills. His awareness and understanding of the game is evident, and he quite often puts himself in position to break up a pass, as well as shut down a run or screen play. In a lot of ways, Johnson is like current Chicago Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller. Fuller was faster in a straight line, but the two parallel in most other aspects of their games.
Fuller was a top 15 pick last year, deserving so. With Johnson offering much of the same skill set with the discount of top tier long speed, he is a solid first round selection. For teams in the back half of the first round, such as the Chiefs, Eagles, Steelers and Ravens, Johnson makes a lot of sense. Worst case scenario, Johnson ends up having a decent career as a nickel corner, but seeing as he is already rather polished in most areas and has some stunning athletic traits, Johnson is primed for a successful career out on the perimeter.