Bears' Johnson thinks rookie defensive backs should be thrown 'in the fire' with first-stringers
When Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson was a rookie second-round draft pick in 2020, he didn't have much time to adjust to the pro game. He started in Week 1 for former defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano's defense.
With two new rookies joining the Bears' secondary as second-round picks this spring, Johnson thinks the Bears should give them a similar initiation.
"I'd throw 'em in the fire, if you're asking me," Johnson said Tuesday at Halas Hall. "I mean, they're our first two draft picks. I feel like we've got to know what they can do right now."
It appeared that rookie cornerback Kyler Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker were working with the second-string defense during organized team activities Tuesday when practice was open to the media. It's early yet. The coaching staff may have a different view, too. Many times, young players have to earn their spots.
Gordon could be well on his way. Head coach Matt Eberflus felt that Gordon was already "lighting it up" through just a few days of OTAs.
"The guy's got tremendous ball skills," Eberflus said. "He's been playing the defense the right way and we're very impressed with him. I'll just tell you that. And he's doing a good job the first two days. We'll see where it goes."
That was a decidedly different tone from what the head coach had to say about Johnson, a 23-year-old third-year pro. When he watched the Bears on film before taking his new job, Eberflus saw Johnson as a young player who was "still a work in progress."
"He's got some things he's got to work on just like all the rest of those guys that are second- and third-year players," Eberflus said.
Johnson has started 28 games at cornerback over his two seasons. Make no mistake, he is going to remain a key defensive piece for the Bears. He was the team's best cover corner in 2021. Considering that he still has room to grow, there's reason to believe he could take his game to an even higher level.
He understands that a new coaching staff means he has to prove himself again.
"It's a complete reset," Johnson said. "Everything I've done in the past with the other coaches, with the other staff, I mean, it really doesn't mean anything."
Last season, there were several games when former defensive coordinator Sean Desai tasked Johnson with following opponents' No. 1 receiver wherever he went on the field. Johnson later said that he needed to improve as a slot cornerback if he wanted to follow top receivers in the NFL. Moving inside comes with more responsibilities against the run and requires a high-level understanding of what the other secondary players are doing behind him.
Late in the year, the Bears kept Johnson outside. For example, against Green Bay in December they lined up Johnson on Davante Adams whenever Adams lined up out wide. After the first quarter, the Packers responded by lining up Adams in the slot more frequently in order to find more suitable one-on-one matchups.
Adams torched the Bears for 121 yards and 2 touchdowns that day. Almost every big play came against a defensive back not named Johnson.
The Bears are keeping their plans for Johnson close to the vest. Johnson was hesitant to set any goals for himself without knowing what exactly he will be asked to do on a game-by-game basis. He admitted that he felt like he struggled at times last year.
"We're all in this together," Johnson said looking back on it. "We just got to be on one page. I feel like a lot of things were more mental than physical things. I don't think there were too many times where there were bad matchups."
The Bears have invested significant resources this offseason into improving the secondary. They might not need Johnson to tail a No. 1 receiver if they can be more confident in the players around him.
General manager Ryan Poles drafted defensive backs with each of their first two draft picks, selecting Gordon from Washington with the 39th overall pick and Brisker from Penn State with the 48th overall pick.
The hope is that Gordon and Brisker, teamed with Johnson and veteran safety Eddie Jackson, can vastly improve the secondary. The addition of free agent cornerback Tavon Young, who brings a ton of experience as a slot corner, could mean Johnson shouldn't need to play the slot regularly.
A lot of that hinges on the rookies, of course. Johnson said Gordon and Brisker are "ball hungry." Johnson and Gordon could be a great one-two punch at boundary corner. Defensive coordinator Alan Williams said Gordon will begin strictly as an outside corner, but that role could evolve over time.
Johnson is stoked about adding talent to the secondary. He had some advice for the rookies, too.
"Have a short memory," Johnson said. "That's big for corner, but especially as a rookie corner. You're going to mess up. You're going to have balls coming (at you). You're going to be in uncomfortable situations. But really just keep moving forward."