Bears rookie CB Jaylon Johnson ready to push for starting job
The loss of Artie Burns narrows the competition for a starting job to Johnson and Kevin Toliver. The Bears are betting on Johnson being a pillar of their defense in the long term, so his timeline is now accelerated.
The Bears hoped they were getting an instant starter when they spent a second-round draft pick on cornerback Jaylon Johnson in April. Now the process of figuring out whether he’s ready has accelerated.
Any thought of bringing Johnson along gradually vanished when one of his two competitors for the job, Artie Burns, suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament the second day of practice. The job is Johnson’s to take, and he doesn’t have an ounce of hesitation as he pushes to lock down the spot in the next two weeks.
“I’ve always felt like I was ready,” Johnson said Thursday. “I feel like everything I have worked for and been doing all these years just came to pass, and now that I’m here, I feel like I’m ready. I still have my mistakes to get out of the way, but physically, I feel like I’m ready.”
Johnson might be slightly undersized at 6-feet, 196 pounds, but with a 40-yard dash time of 4.5 seconds, he should be able to keep up. He has had his hands full covering Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller and others in practice but hasn’t been overwhelmed.
“I felt really good [about] what I have been able to do, just going out there and being able to compete,” Johnson said. “The speed hasn’t been too shocking for me. It’s been really easy to adjust to. It’s just about learning the game, learning some tricks that come with . . . playing against professional athletes.”
While Burns was getting a shot to win the job, and it hurts to lose any cornerback depth, his exit speeds up something the Bears want to see anyway. In a year when they had just two draft picks out of the top 150, great thought went into using the No. 50 slot to take Johnson. The Bears did not have the luxury of choosing someone who would need extended time to develop at cornerback, especially after moving on from veteran Prince Amukamara. They intend for Johnson to be a running mate with two-time Pro Bowler Kyle Fuller in the short term and potentially replace him as their No. 1 corner down the road.
The Bears also have steady 10-year veteran Buster Skrine at corner but are likely to keep him underneath covering slot receivers.
The first test was for Johnson to beat out Burns, a former first-rounder who flamed out in Pittsburgh, and third-year corner Kevin Toliver. Toliver got just 16% of the defensive snaps last season, with nearly all of them coming in the final month. But when Burns went down, the Bears turned to Toliver, who said Thursday he was “motivated a lot” by the Bears drafting Johnson.
But Johnson isn’t afraid of competition. In fact, it doesn’t seem like he’s afraid of anything.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham recalled Johnson telling him upon arrival at campus that he intended to play three years and bolt for the NFL. That was all the time he needed to put himself in position to be the seventh cornerback drafted this year. He put together an impressive career in his brief time with the Utes: seven interceptions (two for touchdowns), 21 pass breakups and 102 tackles in 37 games. He did all that despite undergoing two surgeries on his left shoulder. He also had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder — he unknowingly played through it last season — in March.
With the opener three weeks away, there’s still some mystery as to how much that injury will affect him. Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said this week the team is limiting his snaps, but Johnson said he feels “pretty good.” He did not seem concerned that it might hinder his bid for a starting job.
“I am just trying to go out, get better and do my part,” Johnson said. “And then, if they select me to be [the starter], then I’ll be more than ready.”