Lonnie Johnson of the Houston Texans made an important change in 2020 that might just have saved his NFL career. Targeted often as a rookie cornerback in 2019, Johnson received a coverage grade of just 31.7 from Pro Football Focus – the best individual analytics site when it comes to football that there is. Johnson spent 2019 being burnt, as he gave up nine penalties on the season while giving up seven touchdowns on his coverage. It was not the start any rookie would want to their NFL life.
Johnson, however, was moved to safety this season. No longer was the former Kentucky Wildcat out on an island. Instead, he was able to use his instincts and athleticism to impact plays more as he was suddenly facing the quarterback instead of tracking back in coverage. Wearing his LOUDMOUTH mouthguard – such as the 3D Chrome Grillz in silver and black – Johnson was the most improved player on the entire Texans roster this season per the same folks over at PFF> His grade was bumped nearly 30 total points – jumping to 65.5 – and in playing over 700 defensive snaps at a more comfortable natural position for him, Johnson gave up just one penalty on the year.
Johnson has had an up and down time of it on the football field so it is good to see his star headed in the right direction once again. Originally committed to Ohio State out of high school, Johnson had some academic problems that saw him attend San Bernardino Valley College instead. The Gary (Indiana) prospect played wide receiver and special teams at the school for a year before transferring to Garden City Community College in Kansas for the 2015 and 2106 season. Academics were again an issue, however, and Johnson sat out the 2016 season to get his grades in order and have one final shot at playing college football at the FBS level.
He succeeded in this goal when signing to play for Kentucky in the SEC. In his two years with the Wildcats, Johnson picked up 64 tackles and had one interception. These are not numbers that scream high round draft pick, but his work in the pre-draft process was outstanding as scouts fell in love with his measurables – chiefly his 213 pound 6-foot-2 frame – noting how he has the size, athleticism, speed, and instances to thrive at the cornerback position no matter what scheme he was drafted into.
What made Johnson such a hot commodity was that he was seen to be equally capable of playing man or zone coverage and that he was especially effective as a press coverage cornerback given his exceptional size for the position. His feel for the game was also praised – ironically something that is helping him now as he has transitioned to safety – while Johnson has always been known for his outstanding footwork and his ability to break to the ball and make a play.
In what was not a strong class for cornerbacks overall, Johnson was drafted by the Texans with the 54th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. This second-round grade was something Johnson had earned during the process, but it initially appeared tough to live up to as the jump from college level to the NFL is harder on cornerbacks than it is at just about any other position.
Johnson could easily have flamed out of the league given his year-one struggles. That he has reinvented himself to become a key cog of the Houston secondary moving forward – and remembering that the jump from year-two to year-three in players is always huge – it will be interesting to see what Johnson can do as part of the rebuilding Texans from 2021 onwards.