Jaylon Johnson is in his third season at cornerback for the Bears, but it feels like he already has seen everything.
He began as an understudy to former All-Pro Kyle Fuller, the ultra-quiet, ever-serious lockdown corner. Last season, Johnson was left to fend for himself with a ragtag crew of mostly practice-squad-level players.
And now, at 23, it’s his time. As the Bears rebuild their secondary, they need Johnson to be a certainty. He’ll be handling the opponent’s top threat, for the most part, while the Bears try to develop the rest of the secondary — most notably, top draft pick Kyler Gordon.
It’s still early for Johnson, but this is the perfect moment for his talent and experience to meld — the start of his prime.
“It’s one of those things that just happens by nature and really just seeing something over and over and over and over,” he said when asked how well he understands the game now, after 1,800 snaps, compared to when he debuted. “People ask, ‘How do you read this? How do you see this? How do you play that?’ And a lot of times, my answer is [that] I’ve just seen it a lot of times.
“I just have a different feel. I remember releases. I remember formations. I just can’t explain it or categorize it really.”
It’s an internal database, and it includes detailed files on opposing quarterbacks and wide receivers.
He studies receivers constantly and already knows he’ll be tangling with some of the best this season. All-Pro Deebo Samuel of the 49ers awaits him in Week 1, and Justin Jefferson, Tyreek Hill and Stefon Diggs are on the list, too.
Johnson has never faced some of them — at least not in real life. The fact that he has played against only 19 of the other 31 teams underscores how young he is. But he has memorized moves from endlessly replaying their videos, whether they’re from team-cut scouting clips or viral highlights circulating on Twitter, and defended them in his mind countless times. He described it as an obsession.
“I get to a point where I have my mental imagery, and I’ll just go throughout my house, eyes closed, working and seeing the movements and getting the timing down and imagining myself in front of them,” Johnson said. “I’ve [gone] against those guys thousands of times in my own imagination.”
Nonetheless, Hill is far faster and Diggs more elusive on the field than anything Johnson envisions while pantomiming in his kitchen. And while those two and several others on the schedule could overwhelm an average corner, the Bears are betting on Johnson rising to their level.
After him, there’s no doubt they’ll play Gordon as much as possible to accelerate his career. He’s working outside and at nickel. Johnson said he has been surprisingly proficient for a rookie, and the coaching staff seems equally impressed.
From there, the hope is that the Bears can turn Kindle Vildor, Tavon Young, Duke Shelley and Thomas Graham into capable players. Some of them are Johnson’s age or older, but it’s clear he’s spearheading the group.
“My leadership role has increased 100%,” he said. “It’s really a combination of me and Eddie [Jackson] being able to control the safeties, control the corners and nickels and things like that.
“It’s really just more so leading by example, then gaining their trust. And after that, I feel like we can all follow in one direction.”
The more he talks and the more he plays, it’s clear Johnson is a guy the Bears’ cornerbacks should be following.