The Cleveland Browns and GM Andrew Berry have been sorta quiet in this year’s free agency period. This time last year, the Browns had inked RT Jack Conklin, Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper, MLB B.J. Goodson and made a trade for FB Andy Janovich all on the first day of free agency. Four days later came the signings of QB Case Keenum, KR JoJo Natson and CB Donovan Olumba followed by DT Andrew Billings and C Evan Brown.
And before it was over a dozen new players found the City of Cleveland their new home in a span of 24 days.
One of the position areas that needed some infusion of veteran talent after this year’s playoff run of 2020 was the secondary. At cornerback, Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams are expected to man the outside areas while veteran Terrance Mitchell has since signed with Houston. Perhaps another veteran signing is in the works or another young guy will be drafted.
At the safety position, there are quite a few questions that maybe had answers - and then again - maybe didn’t.
Ronnie Harrison has proven to be an exceptional deep cover guy at the strong safety position who is a terrific tackler. At free safety, that is where things were a bit fuzzy.
Sheldrick Redwine was the only holdover at that spot. Last year, the Browns drafted Grant Delpit out of LSU in the second-round. Berry then signed Andrew Sendejo and Karl Joseph as veteran presence until Delpit was ready to slide into a safety position. Except, Delpit became injured with a ruptured Achilles just a week into training camp and found the IR his resting spot after surgery for his entire rookie season.
And now, supposedly Delpit is ready to compete for a starting position – even though this year will basically become his rookie season all over again. The grueling rehab process is over with. There will be some clarity as to what type of player he actually is despite his high draft status.
It has been clarified that Cleveland is just pieces away from becoming one of the better teams in the AFC. And the lack of quality defensive players is mentioned as what this club needs to accomplish during this off-season. Right out of the gate, Berry signs John Johnson as the newest Brown.
It became clear the switch had flipped
John Johnson is actually John Johnson, III. He was just a skinny kid growing up in Hyattsville, Maryland, but loved sports especially basketball. He made the varsity hoops team at Northwestern High School as a sophomore and became their starting point guard.
Shortly after football season ended in his junior year and into the current basketball season, one day out of the blue Johnson abruptly quit the basketball squad and announced he was devoting his time and energy to his other love – football.
He then could be found most days in the weight room; and after a while bulked up 15 pounds to coincide with his growth spurt. From there, he had a determination to succeed on the football field as a three-way player at receiver, safety and kick returner. He learned to make sacrifices and work hard for the payout.
“John is the most fiery, competitive, driven young man that I have coached,” said Steve Rapp, who coached Johnson at Northwestern High. “He played everything except the D-Line and the O-Line. He would go, ‘Alright, well I could throw the ball farther than you. Well, I’m faster than you. I can hit harder. I can cover better. You need me to do that, coach? No problem. I got it. He just - he’s got the dog in him. He’s got the dog.”
Johnson stopped playing basketball because he decided that he was going to just train his whole junior year, lift weights, get bigger, get stronger and hopefully get faster.
It was in high school that Johnson learned to handle the defensive play-calling duties. He would ingest game plans and was the unmistakable leader of that unit. He was named First Team All-4A (selected at both WR and DB), First Team All-Gazette and Second Team All-State.
All of his high school success got the attention of quite a few colleges. Johnson was only rated as a two-star recruit and ranked Number 2,085 in the nation. He had a 3.2 core grade-point-average and his solid SAT score enabled more D-1 schools to take notice, especially the more academic-inclined colleges. So, he had options – 10 to be exact from schools such as Missouri, UMass, Pittsburgh and Duke.
Athletes are allowed five official visits but Johnson only took one: to Boston College. Evidently impressed with the campus and facilities, but the clincher was the academic aspect of the school. Eventually he announced his commitment to Boston College where he added some pounds and got playing time as a true freshman at either cornerback or safety. By his junior year, he worked into the starting safety position and had six interceptions his final two seasons along with 167 career tackles and 14 pass breakups. More importantly, opposing team’s quarterbacks quit throwing in his direction.
The defining moment for Johnson emerging as a pro prospect was during his junior season when he made the permanent move from cornerback to safety and was paired with Justin Simmons as tandem safeties. Simmons would later be taken in the NFL draft by the Denver Broncos. Together, they helped Boston College become college football’s Number 1 statistical defense.
Before players such as Johnson were recruited to Boston College, their football team went 2-10-0. During Johnson’s four year career they had three winning seasons and took a trip to three bowl games.
Johnson was invited to play in the Senior Bowl following his final season. At the combine, he measured in at 6’ and 1/2”, 208 pounds and ran a 4.61 40 with a 37” vertical jump.
Next stop: Los Angeles
The Los Angeles Rams were needing help in the defensive secondary in 2017. Defensive end Myles Garrett was taken first overall by the Browns. Quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson would soon follow in the first-round.
The Rams were devoid of a first-round pick but had two third-round choices. After taking WR Cooper Cupp, they selected Johnson 91st overall. They liked what they saw on tape and what they heard from his college coaches.
Despite being a third-round draft pick, by the fifth game of his rookie season he became the starter. From the first day of training camp, Johnson was everything the Rams’ coaching staff thought they were getting. Normally, an NFL club doesn’t allow a player with minimal pro experience as much to handle, but he took on that responsibility and never blinked or caved in to the pressure.
In his rookie year as the Rams’ strong safety, he finished with 75 total tackles with just 11 starts. Los Angeles made the playoffs with an 11-5-0 record but lost to the Atlanta Falcons 26-13 in the NFC Wildcard Game. Johnson had six tackles in that contest.
Johnson went into training camp in 2018 as the undisputed starter at SS. In the first game of the season he netted nine tackles on Monday Night Football. He ended the year with 119 tackles, 11 pass defenses, three tackles for loss and one forced fumble. Meanwhile, the Rams were again playoff bound. It was Johnson who intercepted QB Drew Brees in overtime in the NFC Championship Game that sent Los Angeles to Super Bowl LIII against the New England Patriots.
The following year Johnson started only five games when he suffered a shoulder injury in a Week 6 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. At that point, Johnson already had 50 tackles and two interceptions.
“I don’t think about myself. I think I learned a lot about the game just watching, seeing opportunities that you don’t normally see, being out there,” Johnson noted during his injury and the associated down time. “This is the first time I actually like was down. When I got hurt, it wasn’t that I was hurt, I just didn’t have anything to do when I got home from rehab, even before the surgery. It was just weird to not have structure in my life. I won’t take it for granted anymore and have a different outlook on football.”
Last year was the rejuvenation for John Johnson, III and the time period spent not playing probably had an adverse affect on his psyche that enabled him to have a bounce back year. Now completely healthy in 2020, he amassed 105 tackles and was the play-caller for the defense.
Johnson is known for being an excellent tackler and is a force in the run stoppage game who rarely over-pursues. He matches well against tight ends.
The buzz surrounding the Browns signing Johnson has generated numerous high marks. Berry inked him to a three-year deal for $33.75 million with $24 million guaranteed and a signing bonus of $6.75 million. This year he will have a cap hit of $5.25 million.
That is chump change for a complete player who has sound tackling abilities.
A rather odd feature to Johnson’s contract is option bonus. The Browns must decide between the 4th and 15th day of the 2022 league year whether they want to exercise his $6.75 million option bonus. If Berry does decide to enact it, it will be split over the final two years of his deal. This would make that portion more like an extension to his signing bonus. In addition, the franchise will have the option to add one (or more) voidable years that would disperse his bonuses thus freeing up some much needed capitol if the need arises.
Johnson is the third highest ranking safety in 2020 with a 85.6 grade from Pro Football Focus (PFF). He ranked first in interceptions, second in fewest receptions allowed, and third for fewest targets thrown in his direction.
What was the best signing of FA Day 1?— PFF (@PFF) March 16, 2021
We'll start: pic.twitter.com/P0yVrnQcm2
At some point he was getting frustrated with how the Los Angeles defense was operating during mid-season of this past year. Four months ago, Johnson unfollowed the Rams on his Instagram account. Yes, his employer.
Simply put: Johnson is a top shelf safety in this league. And DC Joe Woods loves the safety position. Last year, Woods employed the 4-2-5 over 67% of defensive plays and even brought in the 4-1-6 for 9%. This means that the club needs dependable defensive secondary. And if Woods has his way, three or four of those would be full-time safeties who can bring the lumber.
And an upgrade to the defense is needed. Johnson apparently is just the first. He is an exceptional athlete who allowed only one touchdown all season. That in itself is impressive.
According to ESPN NFL insider Field Yates:
“New Browns S John Johnson is viewed as one of the smartest, instinctive safeties in the league. On top of his physical skill set, he’ll immediately bring leadership, reliability and impact plays.”
It has been reported that Johnson turned down other offers from other franchises that exceeded what Cleveland offered. According to Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Johnson’s agents Alan Herman and Jared Fox of Sportstars divulged that Johnson declined several offers for “significant more money” in order to sign with the Browns.
“That is not exactly chump change, but the Browns are now getting a winner’s discount instead of paying loser’s tax,” stated Fansided. “Make no mistake, players instruct their agents to give preference to teams that they perceive as playoff contenders that give them a real shot at a ring.”
The big question is: who does that? Turn down additional funds? The other clubs offering contracts were the Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles, and the Jacksonville Jaguars. A quick look at that list and one can only speculate that none were potential playoff teams like Cleveland is.
According to Cabot’s report, Johnson really wanted to play for the Browns and explained he can’t wait to get started. He loves the team that Browns GM Andrew Berry has assembled, and felt to be included in their plans was the perfect fit for this point in his career. Johnson is also a huge community support guy.
You have to love guys who want to make Cleveland their home.
The Browns are counting on Ronnie Harrison’s continued progression as a key cog to the defensive backfield. But he missed five games last year with various injuries.
Grant Delpit is the Wild Card in this unit. If he can pick up where he left off and become the ace in the hole for Woods’ defense, coupled with the presence of Johnson, this unit could arguably become one of the club’s best units with Redwine and Jovante Moffatt as backups.
Last season, the Browns ranked 27th in pass defense. PFF rated the Browns’ safeties as the worst cumulative grade in the league with a grade of 48.2. Considering that this group was made up of Sendejo, Joseph, Redwine and Harrison for much of the year, Cleveland has now turned a weakness into a team strength.
A huge benefit is that Johnson is an established leader and play-caller for a club that went to the Super Bowl. He is a smart guy, still young at age 25, is effective against the run and graded out very strong in every category with PFF. He is an elite coverage safety.
Now the Browns have three safeties that are young, coverage smart, strong and fast.
While in Los Angeles, the Johnson signing has been viewed as a major blow. They are scrambling to hopefully find someone who can slide into his slot and come close to replicating his impact in the deep zone.
While with the Rams, Johnson lined up at linebacker and even on the defensive line at times. This plays right into Woods’ plan to morph one of the linebackers in the 4-2-5 with a safety instead. And Johnson was the Rams’ defensive captain and wore a green dot helmet. Remember, Los Angeles was ranked Number 1 in the league last year in pass defense.
With the Browns, Johnson will most likely play true deep safety, two-high safety or box safety. But he is available and able to line up as a true linebacker. And perhaps against the Baltimore Ravens, he will play the spy against QB Lamar Jackson - so versatility is in his toolbox.
His signing will also alter the upcoming NFL draft in that Berry now does not have to waste a valuable high pick on a safety and can wait until Day 2 or 3 to take a young guy to mentor and groom. Redwine has two years left on his rookie deal and will use Johnson’s signing as a wake-up call to learn how to tackle and get more snaps as he gets better in the box.
John Johnson, III will make the Browns defense significantly better.