The only person who saw this coming from Bears rookie cornerback Jaylon Johnson was Johnson. And it’s not bluster and bravado after the fact, either. Johnson told everyone he expected to be this good back at the draft and was open about how insulted he was that he slid to the second round.
He was right.
Johnson has been the best rookie cornerback in the NFL and a jackpot draft pick at No. 50 overall. Quarterbacks have thrown his way 45 times and completed only 47% with an 82.7 passer rating.
“My confidence was always there,” he said. “But it just makes you more hungry to see certain plays that you wanted to make. It’s about getting better and that hunger in me to just keep growing, so I can make more plays.”
Johnson has far outplayed the six cornerbacks — all first-rounders — chosen ahead of him. Just consider that the Bears are getting better production out of the 50th pick than the Lions are getting out of the No. 3 selection, Jeff Okudah from Ohio State.
Johnson is third in the NFL with nine pass breakups, trailing the Giants’ James Bradberry and the Buccaneers’ Carlton Davis by one. No other rookie has more than four. His opponent passer rating is about the same as what Mitch Trubisky put up last season, meaning he’s turning opposing quarterbacks into 2019 Trubisky every time they try him.
The Bears will take that every time.
By contrast, the other 10 cornerbacks chosen in the first three rounds have allowed an average passer rating of 112 — right around Patrick Mahomes’ career rating — and 70% completions.
That’s what the NFL usually does to rookie corners. Too bad for them.
“I’m not thinking about those people who were selected in front of me,” Johnson said. “But I definitely keep that hunger inside me, that there was clearly doubt, [and teams] didn’t take me. But there are plenty of factors that go into my motivation.”
The Bears drafted Johnson out of Utah thinking he could be a long-term answer at corner as well as an immediate starter opposite Kyle Fuller. General manager Ryan Pace looks like he chose wisely on both fronts, and Johnson’s quick success has more than offset losing starting candidate Artie Burns to a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Fuller, whose exceptional play certainly helps Johnson, is 28, and his contract essentially runs out after next season. For his part, Fuller has allowed 46% completions and a 59.2 rating.
“They’re playing great football,” said wide receiver Allen Robinson, who went one-on-one with them throughout the preseason. “The physicality that those guys bring to the game, how they challenge receivers . . . that’s tough on teams. They’re challenging every route.”
The combination of their lockdown coverage, safety Eddie Jackson patrolling the secondary and a world-class pass rush gives the Bears one of the NFL’s scariest pass defenses. They’re first in opponent completion percentage (57.1), second in passer rating (73.5) and third in yards allowed per pass (6.6).
In a secondary in which the other starters, counting Buster Skrine, have a combined 29 seasons of experience, Johnson has fit right in.
The only real lesson Johnson has learned so far is how finicky NFL officiating can be. After no penalties his first four games, he was flagged for three pass interferences (one was declined) and one illegal contact against the Buccaneers and Panthers.
In the Panthers game, a 23-16 victory in which the Bears held Teddy Bridgewater to a 50.4 passer rating and picked him twice,
. The replay showed it was airtight coverage by Johnson that forced the incompletion.
“They make the calls,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t redo it or change anything.”
Neither would the Bears.