NFL News & Analysis

Chicago Bears' Jaylon Johnson on his way to achieving lofty goals as a top cornerback

For perhaps the first time in his football career, Chicago Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson had fun surrendering a reception.

It's only because he was exactly where he wanted to be: aligned on an island facing off against one of the NFL’s premier wide receivers. The Bears lost, 26-6, to the Cleveland Browns, but Johnson’s individual matchup with wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. should be considered a draw.

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The Browns wideout caught three passes on five targets for 57 yards against Johnson, but the talented young cornerback also impressed with a pass breakup when he essentially ran Beckham’s comeback route for him and knocked the ball away at the sideline.

“Honestly I loved it, top to bottom,” Johnson said about his matchup with Beckham in a video interview with PFF. “Even giving up some catches. That’s Odell Beckham. I don’t think anybody can say they held him to no catches. Just for me, just being able to compete and earn his respect and battle against him. Because it definitely wasn’t easy, and that was my goal to challenge him the best I can and make some plays and keep moving when he made some plays. At the end of the day, it was a heck of a challenge for me, and I hope I earned his respect in that regard.”

Johnson recalibrated his goals this offseason. As a rookie second-round pick in 2020, he was comparing himself only against fellow first-year players. He wanted to be one of the best rookie cornerbacks in the league. He was, despite what he believes was an unsuccessful rookie campaign. He finished third among rookie cornerbacks in defensive snaps and seventh in overall PFF grade.

Now, the Utah product has raised his standards, and he wants to be a top-five cornerback in the entire NFL. He appears to be on his way.

Johnson, who prides himself on being one of the stronger cornerbacks in the league, is PFF’s second highest-graded (84.5) cornerback behind the New Orleans Saints’ Marshon Lattimore so far this season. He’s PFF’s highest-graded (93.8) cornerback in single coverage, and he’s allowed only one catch on seven targets for 26 yards and no touchdowns with an interception, three forced incompletions and a 3.0 passer rating allowed when playing on an island.

“When you make it to the NFL, you’re considered one of the best in the world, but I don’t just want to be the best among that big group,” Johnson said. “I want to be the best among the top guys, among the more recognized, the guys that have been doing it the longest. I want to be up there with those names, the Jalen Ramseys, the Stephon Gilmores, the Tre’(Davious) Whites, the Marlon Humphreys. I want to be that Jaylon Johnson. Even if I’m not there, I’m going to keep fighting, keep scratching to get to that top list. When I do get there, I just want to maintain that.”

Johnson wouldn’t reveal all of his goals this season, but the ones he did list off were lofty.

“I don’t want to have a game where a receiver had over 100 yards on me,” Johnson said. “Definitely wanna not allow any touchdowns.”

2021 2020
PFF Overall Grade 84.5 (2nd) 54.9 (91st)
PFF Coverage Grade 83.0 (4th) 56.1 (78th)
Passer Rating Allowed 31.5 (T-1st) 106.7 (95th)
Forced Incompletion % 28.6 (2nd) 19.5% (6th)

*Ranks among qualifying CBs

Johnson has let up just six catches on 14 targets for 79 yards with an interception and four forced incompletions this season. He’s allowing just a 31.5 passer rating, tied with Lattimore for best in the NFL.

The second-year pro hasn’t allowed a 100-yard performance or a touchdown so far, despite covering Beckham, Jefferson and Tee Higgins this season.

Johnson earned a 54.9 overall PFF grade as a rookie starter. So, what’s been the difference this season?

“Honestly, for me, it was really about getting my mind to a different place,” Johnson said. “I haven’t been this focused when it comes to preparation, loving the game and just wanting to be the best. I mean for me, it’s just really about recommitting my mind during training to just push my body, push myself to be better so when I got back to season, when I got to game preparation, everything was second nature in terms of preparing the right way, in terms of having my mind being strong no matter what’s going on in the game, what’s going on during season. Just really being able to keep my mind in the right places and then my body will follow.

“For me, it starts with self-evaluation, and I feel that’s something a lot of people lack or they don’t really want to have that tough conversation with themselves. But for me, it was really about getting back to the drawing board, what didn’t I feel good at, what wasn’t I confident in last year and really just attacking those things. For me, it was pretty much my body from being healthy with my shoulder, increasing my balance, increasing my speed, explosion in and out of breaks and things like that that would help me cover.”

Right now, it’s paying off. Johnson, still mostly an unknown commodity in broader NFL circles, isn’t currently in the conversation for top cornerback in the league. However, if he keeps his pace, he will be by the end of the season.

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