One of the bigger positives from a tough 2021-22 season for the Chicago Bears was the emergence of CB Jaylon Johnson. After an up and down rookie season as the teams CB2, Johnson was thrust into the number 1 corner role, as Kyle Fuller, after a very good season, was cut due to age and cap issues. (Ryan Pace could write a book titled, “The Mismanagement of the NFL Salary Cap” though COVID also hurt him a lot to be fair) Johnson had by all accounts a very good season as the team’s main shutdown man. But it begs the question: just how good is Jaylon Johnson right now compared to his peers? And can he join the top tier of cornerbacks in the NFL, completely shutting down one half of the field and giving up very few catches? Let’s take a look at the numbers
In his first season, Johnson was thrust into the starting role from early on in training camp, following an injury to Artie Burns. In the Bears old defensive scheme, the corners usually stayed on one side of the field the whole game, rarely switching to shadow a receiver. So, Johnson usually didn’t cover the WR1s as Kyle Fuller still did mostly, but he got his fair share of them. Johnathan Wood from Da Bears Blog did a great in-depth review of Jaylon Johnson (and other Bears corners). Johnson’s rookie season started great; he broke up the final pass to beat the Lions in week 1 and helped the Bears defense start out the 2020 season in great form. He gave up just 6.4 yards per target and 41.4% completion. The Bears gave up more than 2 TDs only once in that stretch. Afterwards he fell back to earth; giving up 56.5% completion on 10 yards per target. Giving Johnson the benefit of the doubt, we’ll throw out the final 4 games of that season where he was playing injured and couldn’t play his style, up in the receiver’s face and jamming him at the line, plastering him in man to man coverage. While it wasn’t a perfect rookie season, Johnson’s performance gave fans and the team confidence, which made cutting Kyle Fuller easier for Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy.
Johnson went from Chuck Pagano to Sean Desai as defensive coordinator. According to StatMuse, the Bears were among the leaders in playing man coverage this season, which was a big reason for Johnson’s year 2 jump. Again we have data compiled by Johnathan Wood from Da Bears Blog for the 2021 season . We see a 55/45 split in zone vs man for the Bears last season. Johnson’s overall metrics were all better in 2021. He played more games (13 to 15), was targeted less (78 to 72), gave up fewer completions (44 to 43), less yardage (694 to 564), and had fewer missed tackles (9 to 7). He also gave up less yards per completion (15.8 to 13.1), yards per target (8.9 to 7.8), rating (107.5 to 101.9), and depth of target (12.3 to 11.9). The only stats that didn’t follow this trend were TDs (stayed at 5) and completion percentage (56.4% to 59.7%). But again, now Johnson was shadowing receivers all over the field, not limited to one side, always getting the WR1, even occasionally in the slot. Johnson had some fantastic performances, like against Davante Adams in week 6, where he only had 4 catches and was targeted just 5 times. A high catch percentage sure, but Johnson was hardly targeted. SNF even highlighted his play when they played later in the season, though that time the Packers were able to scheme Adams away from Johnson a lot in the second quarter and on, so Adams had a big game. He also had great performances against the Lions, Ravens, 49ers, Steelers, Cardinals, and Bengals, where he got his first career interception, and had a forced fumble on a peanut punch, doing Charles Tillman proud with his number.
Wood’s article did somewhat surprise me; I was extremely high on Johnson following last season, and while I still am, the numbers reflect that of an above average corner, not a great cornerback. I thought Johnson was being targeted less and Vildor was being picked on more, but turns out per snaps, Johnson was targeted more than Vildor (though when watching the games, when one player is giving up huge plays compared to a couple of first downs it gets blurry). It also showed that Johnson is basically even between zone and man in his abilities (though his preferred style is definitely up in your WR1’s face all game). Johnson was above average in his number of targets and completion percentage allowed, but below average in yards per completion. This reflects that he does well in coverage, but his tight playstyle can lead to some big gainers; I specifically recall a deep bomb given up to Mike Evans down the left sideline, as well as Davante Adams beating him in the slot for a huge gain to help seal the Packers week 4 win. He also gave up a couple of big gainers to Odell Beckham and Justin Jefferson. But again, Johnson by the numbers was an above average CB, though to my eyes on the game he was a very good CB.
The numbers and analysis combed through by Johnathan Wood do not lie; Jaylon Johnson is not yet a shutdown cornerback. But I believe he is already a very good CB. And I believe many factors this season will push him into the great and elite tier, along with Jalen Ramsey, Jaire Alexander, Marlon Humphrey, Xavien Howard, JC Jackson, and Tre’Davious White. What separates these guys elite corners is the extremely low yards per completion and target; Ramsey for example last season, gave up 10.8 Yards per completion and 6.4 yards per target. Johnson’s doing just fine in how often he’s targeted and, in his playstyle, so if he can cut out the deep bombs he sometimes gets hit with if he’s beat at the line, and can avoid offenses moving receivers to avoid him, he can reach that level.
I believe Jaylon Johnson will become elite this season. First, while he does have to learn another new defensive scheme, he already showed he can do it last season, and while Eberflus will run more zone than Desai, he won’t change it up too much; the Bears defense put in some great performances last season, and while guys like Akiem Hicks and Khalil Mack are gone, they were injured most of the season, and the Bears were among the leaders in sacks even without getting to the QB in less than 2 seconds. Next, the schedule is easier; Johnson can gain confidence throuhgout the season, and he doesn’t have to play guys like Davante Adams twice, Ja’Marr Chase and Mike Evans. He still has to get guys like AJ Brown, Tyreek Hill, Justin Jefferson, and Stefon Diggs, but again it’s less concentrated than last season. He’ll be in his second season shadowing top receivers, so he knows how this goes. And lastly, the talent in the secondary around him is better. Kyler Gordon will have growing pains as a rookie CB, just as Jaylon Johnson did, but he will undoubtedly be better than Kidle Vildor. Jaquan Brisker, aka Adrian Amos lite, will be an upgrade over Tashaun Gipson next to Eddie Jackson. And in the slot, both Tavon Young and Thomas Graham Jr are intriguingly better than Duke Shelley. That better supporting cast makes it for the opposing offense to pick on someone until Johnson gets tired than hit him deep. Come the 2023 offseason, we’ll be talking about Jaylon Johnson as an elite cornerback.