The Eagles have picked up a few defensive backs in free agency, but just because they have two new cornerbacks, it does not mean they are done adding to the unit. With Bradley Fletcher and a few others fighting to start opposite Cary Williams, it is important to add good depth for nickel and dime situations as well. Competition is the key.
Earlier this week, Dan Klausner talked about one of his favorite sleeper picks for the 2013 NFL Draft. His piece on Oklahoma cornerback, Demontre Hurst, inspired me to stop being lazy and introduce you to my favorite under-the-radar defensive back in this draft. Purdue cornerback, Josh Johnson, first caught my eye two years ago when I sat down to watch a former high school classmate of mine (Charlton Williams) play for the Boilermakers. Williams was also a defensive back, so I kept my eyes peeled to the secondary, and could not help but notice this tough little guy playing all over the defensive backfield. The guy instantly became a player I wanted to continue to watch.
Johnson is a small (5'9") but strong (199 lbs, put up 16 on the bench press at the Combine) cornerback who can play inside and outside in the defensive backfield. He has average speed (4.65 forty-timeat the Combine, but reportedly ran in the 4.4-range during his Pro Day according to CBS Sports) but is more quick than fast. He does have good long-term speed, as he was among the leading defensive backs in the long shuttle drill in Indianapolis. He grew up in Tampa, Florida where he was a highly-touted baseball prospect, but chose football and Purdue (surprisingly) over the University of Florida. He is also survived third-degree burns over 35% of his body after pushing his brother out of the way of a boiling pot of water as a five-year old.
Johnson made his debut with the Boilermakers as a true freshmen in 2009 and has been a full-time starter over the past three years. This past season, Johnson was named All-Big Ten second team after forcing three fumbles, picking off three passes and breaking up 16 more. Johnson also returned an interception for a touchdown.
As mentioned before, while Johnson is small, he is also tough. CBS Sports says he is a "physical in bump-and-run coverage and aggressively won't back down to anyone. Uses his length to get his hands in the path of the ball and goes after the ball when it's in the air." NFL.com agrees and claims Johnson "possesses the vertical and timing to win jump balls against taller receivers. Can beat receiver blocks with quickness or violent hands, also fights through the catch in the end zone." NFL.com also makes mention of Johnson's versatility in coverage, noting that he has "good agility and quick feet to mirror receivers' routes when in man coverage. Aware zone defender, directs teammates on the field on whom to take when receivers cross. Closes to the ball quickly when playing off, good hand-eye coordination to knock away passes as the ball arrives."
While analysts have a bunch of praise for Johnson, they also have criticisms. CBS is very much aware of Johnson's tendency to be a bit too aggressive, saying he has a "bad habit of playing too hands-on after the receiver gains a step and will attract pass interference penalties with his physical style of play." NFL.com mentions that Johnson "gets grabby downfield, will incur holding and pass interference penalties at the next level unless he trusts his quick feet." Both also make mention of Johnson's lack of elite speed and size.
Josh Johnson is a super tough cornerback, who does not care if you are Chad Hall or Larry Fitzgerald. The guy is "game" all the time. His most impressive game this past year was against Notre Dame, where he went up against likely-1st round pick Tyler Eifert, who is more than a half-foot taller. He drew a pass interference call on his first target but held his own for the rest of the game. Mike Mayock went as far as to point him out for having a tremendous performance. Johnson is not fast, but he can run step for step with plenty of NFL-caliber wide receivers.
Johnson is a very willing tackler and is not afraid to bust a guy at the line. He has decent length and thickness for a smaller cornerback, which allows him to handle tight ends and bigger wide receivers (he is defending 6'3" wide receiver, Aaron Dobson of Marshall, in the picture at the top of the page). He can play off in zone or jam guys in man. Johnson has a nose for the ball and while he does not have a ton of career picks, he breaks up passes with consistency. Eagles fans will appreciate his ability to hit and his effectiveness to break up routes. He has terrific vision as well.
On tape, you will notice that Johnson does get baited at times. His recovery speed is average which could lead to him giving up the big play every so often. He has obvious physical limitations at his height and often gets picked on when going up against bigger targets. While he will not let anyone catch a pass without a fight, if the opposing quarterback has decent touch, he can take advantage of mismatches.
Overall, I think Johnson has a place in this league and may eventually be a starter in the NFL. He is a leader on special teams and in the backfield and has a serious competitive edge to him. He is the type of guy that Chip Kelly would love on his team as a nickel or dime cornerback and a special teams ace (recent signings show that unit is a priority). I project him as a late-fourth/early-fifth round pick.
As I always suggest, do not take my word for it, see for yourself:
Now that you know more about Johnson, would you want to add him as a late-round pick for some solid depth?