Bears’ Jaylon Johnson is ‘already one of the top corners,’ but looking for more

Johnson believes there aren’t many cornerbacks in the NFL better than him when it comes to shutting down an opponent, but he needs to pile up interceptions to strengthen his case as one of the elite at his position.

SHARE Bears’ Jaylon Johnson is ‘already one of the top corners,’ but looking for more
A photo of Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson waving to another player after a 2021 game at Soldier Field.

The Bears drafted Johnson No. 50 overall in 2020.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

When Jaylon Johnson talks about wanting to prove he’s an elite cornerback, what he really means is he’s trying to convince the public.

He already knows it. And he’s sure his opponents do, too.

“I’m already one of the top corners,” he told the Sun-Times. “I just haven’t had the stats to back that up in terms of interceptions. But if we’re talking about strictly limiting guys, covering guys, I don’t think there’s too many guys in this league that can cover better than me.

“It’s more so about the media, especially going into my third year and having an oppor-tunity to restructure a contract. I feel like that plays a part, in that respect. But I know for a fact across the league that my name is respected. People know what I can do.”

For a fact?

“They’ve told me,” Johnson said. “I’m not making this up. . . . After every game, head coaches, quarterbacks, receivers will say, ‘Hey, bro, I respect your game.’ It’s not just something that I think I have.”

With a young and uncertain secondary, the Bears will need Johnson, 23, to live up to that confidence every week. And he’ll begin by taking on 49ers All-Pro Deebo Samuel in the season opener Sunday.

Last season, Samuel caught 77 passes for 1,405 yards — more than half of those came after the catch — and six touchdowns. He lit up the Bears for 171 yards on six catches, although Johnson gave up just one of those, for 16 yards. Samuel beat Kindle Vildor for 50 yards down the middle of the field and took a screen pass 83 while Johnson was in coverage elsewhere.

That was with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback. Now the 49ers are turning to Trey Lance, who started two games as a rookie last season after they drafted him third overall. Johnson gave Lance credit for his arm strength and running ability, “but he’s still got to prove himself to me,” he said.

Regardless of the quarterback, the Bears would be smart to have Johnson shadow Samuel wherever he goes, and Johnson hopes they do.

“That’s what I look forward to, but that’s not up to me,” he said.

He spent much of his offseason studying the top receivers he expects to face this season, including the Vikings’ Justin Jefferson and the Dolphins’ Tyreek Hill. He has been eager to get started with Samuel.

“To go against him and showcase what I can do is another step in the right direction for me,” Johnson said.

The Bears are banking on him to take the lead as they rebuild their secondary. Their other starters are rookie Kyler Gordon at nickel and Vildor — who got benched last season — on the outside.

They are question marks. Johnson cannot be. In fact, he’s one of the few sure things on the entire roster. Last season, he was the only Bears defensive back to hold opposing quarterbacks under 60% completions when they threw his way. He was under 60% as a rookie, too.

But the lack of interceptions is problematic. He has just one in 28 career games.

“If I get four or five interceptions, I’ll probably be All-Pro and Pro Bowl, easy,” he said. “But those are stat games, and at times, a name game. If I had a bigger name on a bigger team and we were winning, I don’t think I would be overlooked.”

The part about being on an irrelevant team is a valid complaint, but that’s not going to change unless Johnson helps make it happen. Causing turnovers is one piece of that. If he solidifies his status as a lockdown corner so strongly that no one can refute it — not even general manager Ryan Poles — he’ll get the contract extension he wants next year and become a pillar of the Bears’ rebuild.

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