Twenty four years ago, Walt Harris took the field for the Chicago Bears during the 1996-97 season opener against the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football. Not only did Harris turn in a dominating performance (nine tackles and a forced fumble), it was the last time Chicago started a rookie cornerback in a season opener.
That's all changed on Sunday, Sept. 13 when Jaylon Johnson made his debut as the starting right cornerback for the Bears when they kicked off against the Detroit Lions to begin to the 2020 NFL season.
According to Chicago head coach Matt Nagy, he's a big fan of Johnson's mindset ever since he stepped into the Bears facilities and onto the practice fields.
"The other part I like about him is I'm rousing him all the time in the building," Nagy said. "You can see his confidence that he has. You have to have short-term memory in this league. He's got extreme confidence. And it's not cocky. It's confidence. I like that about him."
Johnson's rookie campaign was up-and-down, but with significant more ups than downs — finishing with 44 tackles and 15 passes defended in 13 games. He made a game-saving play in the season opener, breaking up a touchdown pass on the final play of the game that resulted in a 27-23 victory over Detroit.
According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson has been pegged as one of the breakout players of the 2022 campaign.
“Cornerback has the steepest learning curve from college to the NFL. The biggest thing you want to see from a rookie like Johnson is holding up at the line of scrimmage and not getting burnt in man coverage,” Treash wrote. “And that’s where he impressed in 2020. His coverage grade among outside corners in man coverage was the second-best in the NFL.”
What makes Johnson ideal for a breakout season is that the one part he struggled most in — zone coverage — is where he thrived in college as one of the best cornerbacks. He ranked fifth-to-last in among cornerbacks in zone coverage grades, which is where he gave up 12 catches of 15-or-more yards throughout the season.
Ironically, zone coverage is where Johnson made a name for himself in college as one of the most physical and instinctive cornerbacks. As to why Johnson may have struggled in zone coverage at the pro level, it's best assumed that he was afraid to make a mistake and therefore played more safe, which doesn't suit his game. It stands to reason that the more he plays and adjusts to the game at the NFL, the more comfortable he will become and return to his old ways.
However, Johnson did thrive as a cover corner in man coverage. He finished with the second-highest grade among cornerbacks in man coverage.
For all those reasons, it's expected that Johnson will take a huge step forward next season and more than live up to the billing of being a second round pick.
Johnson finished his junior season with 36 tackles (34 solo), 11 pass break-ups and two interceptions with one touchdown. That tackle number may seem low but that's because Johnson was rarely tested. The most impressive part was that 34 of his 36 tackles were solo, showcasing his physicality and ability to bring down receivers one-on-one.
He was selected with the No. 50 overall pick in the second round.
"Jaylon has just a really good combination of size, athleticism and awareness," Chicago general manager Ryan Pace said after drafting Johnson. "He's that physical, press corner that uses his size really well. He uses his strength to his advantage, to re-route receivers. Jaylon also is a really intelligent player, plays the game with excellent instincts and awareness. You can see it in the way he plays.
"And Jaylon's another guy with outstanding football makeup, really high football character. This is a guy who is driven and passionate. [There are] a lot of stories about his work ethic and just his professional approach to the game. So we feel real strong about the physical talent but also the makeup."
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