The NFL may be a quarterback driven league with the a franchise signal caller the holy grail for all rosters. However as offenses get more sophisticated and with the rules tipped more in their favour a playmaking secondary has become of the most valued part of any teams roster.
Josh Norman, the stand out cornerback in this year’s free agency, emerged this year as a shut down corner and marked it with an all-pro season. Norman now joins the ranks of Richard Sherman, Darrelle Revis and Patrick Peterson as shutdown corners able to make an opposing QB’s life very difficult.
One player who could make a Norman-type jump in 2016 is pending free agent Trumaine Johnson. The L.A. Rams corner had an outstanding campaign where he racked up seven picks, one pick six, 17 defended passes and 71 total tackles. The stat line makes for pretty reading and with the cornerback position the stats are everything when it comes to leverage in terms of both contracts and ranking themselves above their peers.
Johnson had a career year in 2015, in a contract year no less, and will look to cash in big as he makes him name as a number one corner. The third round pick finished second in his position with interceptions behind rookie Marcus Peters and upon watching his game closely it is easy to see why. The Rams corner possesses great anticipation and is able to read routes and jump them as well as get downfield and win battles for 50/50 jump balls. Several of Johnson’s INTs came from anticipating the route and jumping it, laying out and snagging the ball away. What makes the picks more impressive is that the fourth year player was lining up against number one receivers: Mike Evans, Calvin Johnson and James Jones to name a few – although Jones was forced into the number one receiver role by way of Jordy Nelson’s injury.
The Rams have a fantastic front seven with players like Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald causing havoc in the trenches and as always with defenses the front end is tied to the back end – Johnson has great skills but benefits from great pressure up front forcing QBs to rush their throws. Playing in the NFC West Johnson may not be the best cornerback in the division with Sherman and Peterson duelling for that title but he is quietly making a name for himself and has himself good leverage heading into free agency.
The Rams front office have some decisions to make with the man who lines up opposite Johnson, Janoris Jenkins, also primed for free agency – he also produced a very impressive season with four takeaways and 15 defended passes. Jenkins was also selected in the 2012, a round earlier than his teammate but the knock on him was he was an undersized corner. With the tall, quick and powerful pass catchers emerging in recent years Johnson has the ideal size to deal with them at 6″2. Not to mention that he is quick for his size, the Montana product is able to keep pace downfield with receivers and break passes up or force turnovers. Johnson clocked in a time of 4.61 in the 40 yard dash, not far behind the time of Sherman in 2011.
The Seattle Seahawks made the blueprint of building an outstanding defense which is anchored by the secondary – the Denver Broncos lifted their third Super Bowl trophy after following that blueprint. Johnson, along with Jenkins, could form part of a secondary which makes big plays and forces turnovers. Without a real franchise quarterback Head Coach Jeff Fisher will have to lean on his defense to help them win games, again as Denver did in the Super Bowl, and Johnson could be a huge part of that as a shutdown corner who takes away the left half of the field.
Should the 26-year-old stay with the Rams then the new season will be a huge one for him with him set to face a high powered Arizona Cardinals passing attack twice along with a Carolina team hopefully boasting a healthy Kelvin Benjamin as well as squaring off against Julio Jones, Sammy Watkins, Odell Beckham Jr, Mike Evans and Brandon Marshall. It will prove to be his biggest test of his NFL career so far should he stay in L.A. and it will be one to watch with keen interest as in the 2015 season, although he picked off Aaron Rodgers, Johnson was sometimes found wanting against high powered offenses such as Arizona and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Johnson has come to the end of his rookie contract in which he earned just $1.5m so there is no doubt he will see a significant pay rise although it is up in the air whether he will receive the franchise tag which will see him earn a whopping $13.7m in 2016 but if he is to continue his progress then by this time next year that figure could prove to be a fair price for a cornerback in his prime and putting on tape his ability to match up against number one wide outs.
Should Johnson test the open market then there will be no shortage of suitors as the Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers all in need of help in the back end and having the cap space to pay a man who we may now start putting in the top tier of cornerbacks by then end of the 2016 regular season.