Much of the focus on the Rams’ defensive future is centered on the seemingly inevitable extension of Marcus Peters. Peters’ extension is a huge concern one way or another but it isn’t the extension the Rams should be focused on. Earlier in the week, Sean McVay talked about how the Rams have a “positive problem” at corner because they have a deep mix of vets and young guys. Sure, that changes drastically once Aqib Talib retires or is not re-signed next year and Peters proves unworthy of getting Malcolm Butler money. That said, Les Snead is content to let a corner go if they don’t warrant it. He let the Jets overpay for Trumaine Johnson and allowed the Raiders to bet the wad on Lamarcus Joyner. However, one player he can’t let walk in two years is safety John Johnson.
That’s right, John Johnson is a bigger priority than Marcus Peters. Johnson is poised to be one of the best safeties in the league and the Rams are much thinner at that spot than at the corner position. When he was drafted in the third round in 2017 he was one of two higher round picks on defense and with good reason (Tanzel Smart was taken in the 4th round). The Rams’ cupboard at that spot was emptier than a theater showing “The Kitchen”. John Johnson wasn’t supposed to get a lot of playing time. Lamarcus Joyner was in his first season of being a full-time safety and they still had Maurice Alexander.
John Johnson, however, quickly endured himself to coaches and ended up starting in place of Maurice Alexander. In his first start, he recorded three combined tackles and an interception. By season’s end, he had 75 combined tackles, 11 deflections, and a pick. He even started in the Rams’ wild-card loss to the Falcons.
In year two he cemented himself as a starter and had a much more productive season. His first game of the season he recorded nine tackles and picked off Derek Carr in primetime. He finished the season with 119 tackles and four picks.
His biggest contribution of the year came in the NFC Championship when he picked off Drew Brees in overtime. True, that game doesn’t count because the refs made a mistake so cataclysmic that the Saints defense collapsed but never the less, Johnson sealed the Rams trip to the Super Bowl where he recorded an additional seven tackles.
What helps John Johnson’s upward trajectory is the fact the Rams paired him with veteran Eric Weddle. Weddle still has enough in the tank to help the Rams get back to the Super Bowl and despite his age should be better than Joyner was last year. Johnson also has two years to pick Weddle’s brain and coincidentally this is when his rookie deal is up. Assuming health and a continual uptick in play his extension should be a no brainer, keyword “should”, there are no guarantees in the NFL (except of course Roger Goodell being incompetent).
The even better news is the Rams already prepared for Weddle’s eventual retirement by drafting Taylor Rapp in round two. Rapp is athletic and has the potential to be a big-time ball hawk. He and Johnson should become one of the best safety tandems in the league. It might seem too soon to be heaping Nic Cage levels of high praise on John Johnson so soon but given what he’s done thus far it’s warranted.
The Rams need to secure him for their future and while Peters can be great, there’s no guarantee he becomes the second coming of Revis Island. John Johnson is already one of the best tackling safeties in the league and if he can better develop in coverage he could receive the kind of love Derwin James receives across town.
Les Snead has done a tremendous job building his team, and upfront he has Aaron Donald “King of the Monsters” and a slew of young pass rushers that could make the front seven thrive for years. One of his greatest achievements, however, is continually finding stars in the later rounds. John Johnson may not be a household name yet but give it time.