The 2015 NFL Draft features a deep crop of wide receiver prospects but finding quality pass defenders is a bit harder. Luckily, Dave Archibald is here to sort out the NFL Combine superstars from the game-proven prospects, like Wake Forest CB Kevin Johnson.
Kevin Johnson is the 48-year-old mayor of Sacramento, and a former NBA player for the Phoenix Suns and Cleveland Cav … wait, wrong Kevin Johnson. Wake Forest’s “K.J.” has a similar build (listed at 6’0”, 175 pounds, though he tipped the scales at 188 pounds at the Combine) to the former point guard as well as an NBA player’s leaping ability with a 41 1/2” vertical. The cornerback didn’t draw many headlines playing for the three-win Demon Deacons, who haven’t had a winning season since 2008, but he starred on film and at February’s Combine.
Tale of the Tape
The chart below shows Johnson’s measurement and performance in Combine drills, as well as the percentile rank of how he stacks up to other cornerbacks since 1999:
|Height||Weight||Arm Length||Hand Span||40-Yard||Vertical||Broad Jump||Short Shuttle||3-Cone|
Data from NFLCombineResults.com and NFL.com
Johnson had an excellent Combine performance that flew under the radar. He was just average in the heavily-publicized 40-yard-dash and his physical measurements were unimpressive, but he ranked among the top five in each of the jumping and agility drills. These drills aren’t as sexy as the 40, but may be better measures of overall athleticism, particularly for cornerbacks.
What He Does Well
Johnson has excellent instincts and awareness in zone coverage:
Johnson (#9) lines up outside, across from Clemson wideout Mike Williams (#7). Just before the snap, tight end Stanton Seckinger (#81) goes in motion to the slot on Johnson’s side. The receiver and tight end run routes that cross, with Williams cutting in while Seckinger runs an out-and-up. It’s a strong concept against Wake’s Cover 3: if Johnson follows the in cut, he leaves the out-and-up route wide open for a big gain. The Broncos used a similar combination to hit two big plays on their fourth-quarter game-tying drive against the Seahawks’ Cover 3 in Week 3 of 2014.
Johnson recognizes the play, immediately picks up Seckinger, and then leaps over the 6’5” tight end to deflect the pass. It’s a heady play and one that shows Johnson’s physical and mental abilities in zone.
Johnson also shows a great burst to keep plays in front of him:
Florida State’s Kermit Whitfield (#8) runs a deep cross and is wide open between the layers of the zone. Johnson drives downhill from his deep area and blasts the sophomore receiver, dislodging the ball. It’s a clean hit ‒ Johnson doesn’t lead with his helmet or strike Whitfield’s head ‒ and a very effective one. The senior doesn’t often deliver such jarring blows, but this play is indicative of the speed and decisiveness Johnson employs when closing on receivers from off the ball.
Johnson has quick feet and fluid hips, giving him excellent short-area change-of-direction skills:
Virginia Tech’s leading receiver Isaiah Ford (#1) tries to juke Johnson with a jab step outside followed by a cut in, but the cornerback stays balanced in his backpedal then swivels and closes on the slant. As a result, the quarterback is forced to go elsewhere with the pass.
The off coverage abilities Johnson demonstrates should translate readily to the NFL. He has shown some potential to play press-man, but needs to add bulk to jam NFL receivers.
Areas to Improve
Johnson often struggles to defeat blocks on outside runs:
Clemson gets a long rushing touchdown here, in no small part because Johnson lets himself get blocked out of the play too easily. Corners don’t factor into the running game as much as other defensive players, but when they fail to keep the edge or force the runner to change his path, it can lead to long runs like this one.
Comparable Player: Jabari Greer
Like Johnson, the former Bills and Saints cornerback weighed in at less than 180 pounds in college, but made up for it with heady play and lateral quickness. Greer worked his way from an undrafted free agent to one of the NFL’s most underrated cover corners.
Johnson needs to pack on a few more pounds ‒ if he hasn’t already ‒ to hold up in press coverage and run support against more physically mature professionals. The fact that he was able to add weight and still prove his athleticism at the Combine bodes well. Now he needs to translate that to game strength.
His recognition in zone and his mirroring skills in man-to-man coverage are special, but those talents may not be enough as pass defenses trend toward more and more press-man technique. To maximize his early contributions, he’ll need to be drafted into a scheme that features a lot of zone and off-man concepts. In the right place, Johnson can make an impact as an able zone defender and a tenacious off-man cornerback.
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