If the Broncos lose Jackson or Simmons, this former Ram makes too much sense.
Safety isn’t going to be a need unless George Paton decides to make it one. The Broncos new general manager could create $10 million in cap space if the 33-year old Kareem Jackson is deemed expendable. Or he could decide Justin Simmons’ play doesn’t warrant a deal near or exceeding the top of the current market.
Either decision will create a rather huge hole in the Fangio defense.
To fill that need, Paton could sign John Johnson.
John Johnson III, Safety, Los Angeles Rams
Weight: 205 lbs.
Experience: 4 NFL Seasons
One of the first draft picks of the Sean McVay era, John Johnson joined the Rams as a third round pick in 2017. While it took him until October to earn his first start, Johnson logged snaps in all 17 games as a rookie. He’s been a reliable fixture on the backend since, only missing time in 2019 due to injury.
According to Sports Info Solutions’ charting, Johnson allowed 25 receptions on 41 targets for 174 yards and a touchdown. He intercepted one pass and had three others dropped. Counting playoffs Johnson has nine picks in the NFL.
1st & 18 at BUF 21 w/ 4:20 left in 3rd.
Man, idk what to think of this. Allen kind looked panicked here. Did a good job escaping the rush, but he just kind lobbed it up there for grabs. Incredible job of John Johnson III of ripping that ball out of Kroft’s hands. pic.twitter.com/zt3W22GP54
— Jared Feinberg (@JRodNFLDraft) September 30, 2020
Why it makes sense
If the Broncos do not hold onto both Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson there will be a glaring need at safety with a defensive system that places a great deal of emphasis on their versatility, ability to cover, and fill from the alley. Johnson is a clear scheme fit who spent last season playing for Fangio protégé Brandon Staley. He’s already familiar with the Broncos defensive system and while his interception numbers aren’t eye popping, he’s among the better coverage safeties in the NFL and logged 164 snaps in the slot last season.
With Johnson as a key cog on the third level, L.A. allowed just four passes of 40 yards or more during the regular season, which was the fewest in the NFL. It should be no surprise that the Rams were the best team in the NFL against deep passes last season by DVOA by a considerable margin. The gap between L.A. and the second best Patriots is larger than the gap between New England and the Giants who came in at 21st.
As a 2017 draftee who was teammates with Justin Simmons at Boston College, this will be Johnson’s first foray into free agency. He won’t turn 26 until December of this year so he could pair with Simmons as cornerstones of the Fangio defense for the foreseeable future.
Like cornerback Troy Hill, Johnson’s played in multiple systems during his career so he could survive a potential coaching change if need be. Johnson thrived in the Wade Phillips defense until 2019 and it shouldn’t be hard for a defensive coordinator to make use of his savvy and complete skillset.
John Johnson III has been so damn good this year. This is art. pic.twitter.com/a1H12uJmNy
— Robert Mays (@robertmays) January 13, 2021
Why it doesn’t make sense
As I write this both Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons are expected to return to the Broncos. Jackson has one year remaining on his contract while Justin Simmons is a near lock for the franchise tag if George Paton does not extend him. If both remain on the payroll it would odd to add another safety as it’d force Kareem Jackson to slide to corner or nickel.
Beyond the need issue, Johnson is considered one of the best safeties on the market after Simmons and he’ll probably earn looks from just about every team that needs help on the back end. His age and potential for growth mean it’s easy to believe his best days are still ahead of him, which means he won’t come cheap.
It’s worth noting that Johnson did struggle in 2019 before his season came to an end when a shoulder injury landed him on Injured Reserve.
Rams safety (and soon-to-be free agent John Johnson III is an interesting eval. Not a ballhawk at all, but he’s a plus-level disruptor at the catch point. Nine PBU in 2020. I swear, he’d rather hit a guy to cause an incomplete pass than catch the ball. Great player, though. pic.twitter.com/Twz6j6W9sK
— Doug Farrar (@NFL_DougFarrar) February 16, 2021
With all of the uncertainty around the projected salary cap it’s hard to project what Johnson could cost the Broncos. It does seems likely that he’ll earn more per year than Jackson’s 2021 cap number of $12.82 million. There’s a distinct possibility that he could be worth it in a Fangio system that makes the most of elite safety play.
With all that in mind, I like Johnson as a potential free agent target. I don’t love it for a couple of big reasons, however. First and foremost, Justin Simmons ought to receive a long term extension this offseason. Signing Johnson and extending Simmons would mean the Broncos have the highest paid safety duo in the NFL going forward. If Vic Fangio and his defense don’t survive 2021 that could quickly become problematic.