In 2016, the Rams were ranked in the Top 10 for Pass Defense (No. 10). Hard to believe for a team that went 4-12 last season, which included two different losing streaks of four and seven games, respectively.
Looking at the finer details of their collective pass-defense reveals the higher-than-expected ranking is not what it appears to be. The Los Angeles Rams allowed the third-most passing touchdowns, eighth-most completions, fifth-highest completion percentage, ninth-lowest interception total, and allowed opposing quarterbacks to have the eighth-highest quarterback rating.
At least they beat the Seattle Seahawks at home, huh?
With the hiring of Sean McVay, the Rams went out with the old (Gregg Williams), brought in the older, yet wiser (Wade Phillips), and brought in new names and experience to help with their defense. In came Kayvon Webster and Nickell Robey-Coleman, two corners with some solid production of their own, and corners who have played in systems similar to Phillips. Webster being one of the few free agent acquisitions to play under Phillips.
But the McVay and general manager Les Snead also did work in the draft to bring in one more name to contribute to their defensive reconstruction: John Johnson.
He’s listed as a free safety, but Johnson played almost everywhere in the secondary for the Boston College Eagles. Johnson even did a lot of work on special teams, with blocked punts and numerous tackles to his name.
So even if Johnson doesn’t crack the starting lineup on defense come September, he could definitely make the starting kickoff and punt teams.
Watch the tape, ignore the workouts
Johnson did make a name for himself at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Al., this year thanks to the individual drills and workouts before the game. But the workouts he did at the Senior Bowl and Pro Day should not hold much weight compared to his game film.
Because when you look at this workout numbers, you might write Johnson off. A secondary player who runs the 40 in 4.6 seconds is not someone who draws a lot of attention to himself.
John Johnson isn’t an enforcer over the middle but ball skills & athleticism to roam deep middle makes him really attractive in today’s NFL.
— Brian Billick (@CoachBillick) April 29, 2017
But strap on the helmet and pads and put him in a game, and you’ll have a secondary player who can do well in the pass-coverage and will challenge anyone who carries the ball, regardless of size.
When facing the pass
When he’s lined up as a safety, Johnson has great awareness of where the quarterback is looking and has solid coverage over the middle or his half of the field. Johnson may not have the quick 40-time, but you can almost always find him sprinting to assist his corner when the ball is thrown deep in the air.
When he’s lined up in the corner spot, Johnson looks even better. He can face the speedy receivers down the sideline and keep a hand on them while turning his eyes behind him to see if there are any passes coming his way.
During the final two seasons in Boston College, Johnson compiled six interceptions and 12 pass break-ups.
When facing the run
As a safety, you could see Johnson lined up in the defensive backfield as often as you would see him lined up near the line-of-scrimmage.
When lining up near the line, Johnson could fight off blocks or run through traffic to find the ball-carrier. Let me be clear, he is not the most consistent tackler. There are times when he either whiffs or doesn’t have the strength and aggression in his tackle to bring down the bigger guys. But when the space is small, and he’s close to the line, Johnson can make the tackle or at least trip the ball-carrier up.
He also is not afraid to run up the field and face a bigger running back or quarterback. Johnson is 6-feet tall and 205, but he lowers his shoulder and puts everything into the bigger ball-carrier. Again, he’s not always going to bring them down by himself, but the willingness to make the stop against a much larger guy is impressive.
Let the Eagle fly
The Rams are transitioning some of their personnel to new positions. Among them is slot corner LaMarcus Joyner, who is making the leap to free safety, which was Johnson’s primary position in college. Should that transition not work, or should the Rams just need help at safety or corner, Johnson could be the insurance depth they need.
Snead brought in two experienced corners for their defense, so Johnson’s best bet to play in the defense is safety. Joyner is 5’8” and under 200 pounds. Johnson players with a slightly taller build, and has more experience at that position, albeit at the collegiate level.
There is plenty of work to do with Johnson on his tackling, but coverage corner or safety Johnson is someone who could contribute immediately.
Tim Godfrey is the lead LA Rams writer and analyst for Pro Football Spot. Follow him on Twitter @MrTimGodfrey.