Jaylon Johnson’s status as a premier cornerback is no longer up for debate. However, his future in the Windy City was murky earlier this year, as Chicago’s front office dangled the star cornerback, who is in the final year of his rookie deal, on the trade block ahead of the trade deadline amid reports that contract negotiations had stalled. While it is understandable that Ryan Poles didn’t want to cave into Jaylon Johnson’s demands ahead of the trade deadline (or last offseason), it is safe to say the Bears lost leverage in contract negotiations after his breakout season.
Johnson has always been great in coverage, but he left a lot to be desired in the big play department, as he had only one career interception and fumble recovery before this season. There were questions about whether he could thrive in Matt Eberflus’ defense that emphasizes the importance of turnovers. Well, he promptly put those doubts to rest with his four-interception campaign (with two games to go) this year.
While Johnson certainly made himself some money with the increased efficiency in the turnover department this year, he also had his best season in coverage. The 24-year-old is Pro Football Focus’ top-ranked cover man with a grade of 91.3, and opposing passers have a passer rating of only 30.9 when targeting him this season. He also has only allowed 185 yards before Sunday’s game against the Cardinals.
Now that Johnson’s resume has been bolstered, what would a contract look like for the Bears star cornerback? It is unclear just how much he is asking for, but there is little doubt that he deserves a deal that pays him like one of the league’s top ten cornerbacks, which would put him in the $15 million-per-year to $21-million-per-year range.
When you factor in his age, consistency, and the fact that he had his best season came in a contract year, he probably finds himself closer to the higher end of the group outlined above than the lower end. Six cornerbacks make between $19.4 million and $21 million per year and Johnson will probably wind up in that range. Some will be outraged by the figures when they are announced, but that is the going rate for an elite cornerback, and it could look like a bargain if he continues progressing and other corners reach next-man-up status in the coming years.
Ryan Poles has only been at the helm for two seasons, but he has already shown no interest in keeping hostages, no matter how talented a player might be, as evidenced by last year’s Roquan Smith debacle. Poles didn’t budge in contract discussions last offseason, and Smith took offense to it, requesting a trade in the preseason. While they eventually seemed to put their differences aside, it became clear they were just putting their differences aside when the Bears agreed to trade Smith to Baltimore ahead of the trade deadline.
Johnson could still theoretically get moved this offseason (or signed to a franchise tag), but his situation is very different from the Roquan Smith one last year. For starters, Johnson has expressed his desire to stay in Chicago. Smith couldn’t wait to find a new home, and he made that clear in his preseason trade request. Johnson is also as versatile as they come, showing as much ability to lockdown opponents in man coverage as he does in zone. Meanwhile, there were questions whether Smith would fit in the Bears 4-3 defense after spending the previous three years in a 3-4, and he routinely looked lost in coverage last season before getting moved.
While Johnson may not be perfect (he has left at least three more interceptions on the field this year), he is a rock-solid starter and is arguably the Bears’ best player on the defensive side of the ball. He is the type of player that a team should do everything in their power to keep. Chicago has been abysmal at retaining players beyond their rookie deal, but Johnson is one they simply can’t lose, even if it will cost them a premium to keep him around. Players like Johnson are hard to come by, and I’m confident Poles understands that.
Contract prediction: The Bears resign Johnson to a 4-year, $76 million deal ($60 million guaranteed).