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Rams safety John Johnson is still capable, but miscast with Browns

The DB’s years with the Browns didn’t live up to the standard he set in Los Angeles

Los Angeles Rams v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Rams seem to at least be flirting with the idea of a reunion between them and veteran defensive back John Johnson. Johnson was a third round pick from the 2017 draft class—the first in the Sean McVay era. The safety went on to play four seasons in Los Angeles before departing in free agency for the Cleveland Browns, where he spent two years and was released heading into the offseason.

UPDATE: A few hours after this post was made, Johnson agreed to a one-year deal with the Rams according to multiple reports. He now reunites with McVay after securing the all-important interception that earned the team a berth in the 2018 Super Bowl.

Johnson produced three great to elite seasons during his time with the Rams, the lone exception was a injury-riddled 2019 where he played less than 400 snaps. He wasn’t the same type of player when he moved on to Cleveland, but one reason for optimism moving forward is that the Browns used him in a much different way than the Rams did.

From 2017 to 2019 in LA under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, Johnson essentially split time between playing free safety and coming down into the box or slot. 1,017 of his 2,069 (49%) total snaps from these years came from the slot or box while 941 (45%) came from the free safety alignment, according to PFF tracking data.

That mix changed slightly when Brandon Staley took over as DC in 2020, and Johnson aligned more often from the slot. After playing 144 snaps from the slot in three years under Phillips, the safety had 230 reps from the slot in a single year under Staley. Coincidence or not, this was Johnson’s best career season where he allowed just 7.0 yards per reception and forced seven pass breakups.

But Johnson’s duties and alignments changed significantly when he played for the Browns under defensive coordinator Joe Woods. Aside from 2019 that was marred by injuries, his worst seasons came while he was in Cleveland. Perhaps that is a reason to be optimistic if the Rams sign him and can deploy him in a manner that best suits his skillset.

Instead of splitting time between box and free safety, Johnson became more of a free safety with the Browns. He played just 20% of his snaps from a box alignment and 11% from the slot while his frequency in the free safety position rose to 68%.

It may be safe to conclude that Johnson is better utilized closer to the line of scrimmage, though with his coverage skills you would think he’d be better off playing from depth. Johnson’s best season in 2020 was also his best year as a run defender, which shows he can affect opposing offenses in more ways than protecting against the deep ball.

It remains to be seen whether John Johnson will reunite with the Rams and help lead this young defense and secondary. There are reasons to be optimistic that the Rams coaching staff understands Johnson’s skillset and how to get the best production from the player. If he does sign and play with the team, it will be interesting to see whether the team deploys him closer to the line of scrimmage like he did in his first stint in Los Angeles or if the Rams now view him as more of a free safety. The safety is still only 27 years old and his best football could be ahead of him, especially if he is put in positions to succeed.

Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images