You’ve heard it before and you are about to hear it again. It’s the major theme of the Texans’ 2019 NFL Draft class. Lonnie Johnson has potential, size, length, strength, positive traits, and could eventually develop into a starting cornerback, but as of right now, he isn’t a starting caliber NFL cornerback.
From an athletic standpoint, Johnson is a stoic figure who fits in among his colleagues. He’s 6’2” and 218 pounds. Has 32-5/8” arms. Pushed 225 lbs. up 15 times. Jumped high and far. Ran a 4.52 40 yard dash. His combine performance and body are only slightly different than Richard Sherman’s.
Just because you’re big, however, doesn’t mean you’re physical. These two adjectives aren’t automatically joined together. They are two entirely different traits. Size is natural. Physicality is earned. Johnson is big, but he doesn’t play like it.
As a coverage corner, Johnson doesn’t have the quickness to stick in front of receivers and mirror their routes. Johnson is a cornerback who has to use his size to his advantage to have success, and too often he doesn’t. The key component holding him back is his hands. He doesn’t knock receivers off track with his punch. Too often, he misses the correct target.
This is a simple slant route where Johnson is in press man coverage. He sits in the chair and reads the receiver. He overreacts to the receiver’s outside jab, opening up an inside release. He’s extended wide. The punch needs to see his off hand hit the receiver’s chest. Instead he reaches with his inside hand and doesn’t knock the receiver off his route at all. It’s an empty grasp of air as he tumbles to his death. The wide receiver cuts inside wide open and just so happens to drop the ball.
This is press coverage in the red zone against Texas A&M. Here Johnson is playing the receiver, not the ball; he’s focused on a possible fade. He has a monomaniacal focus on the receiver’s outside shoulder. The receiver is given a free release while he overpursues to remain fixed on this target. When the receiver cuts back to the sideline, Johnson slips on his break with long wild trudges, still playing the outside shoulder. Instead of cutting on the inside shoulder to get between the receiver and the quarterback to play the ball, Johnson takes a wider release that he can’t come back from. The inside reach with his left arm doesn’t affect the catch.
On 3rd and 4 here, Johnson has outside placement against the receiver. The receiver takes an inside release and Johnson reacts. He slides inside, looking for a short throw, and misses his jam completely. His off-hand should be on the receiver’s chest. He overreacts to the inside release and ends up with his head on the receiver’s inside shoulder. The receiver swims over his death rattle. Johnson chases. The receiver loses him again at the top of his route once he breaks to the sideline.
Johnson overreacts to the receiver, gives him a free release, and doesn’t use his size to his advantage at all whatsoever. As a result, Georgia picks up an easy first down. The short area quickness just isn’t here to stick for Johnson to wide receivers. Johnson must get better at getting his hands on receivers; when he does, the hands must affect the receiver’s routes. He isn’t going to win with his feet.
Those feet need to be cleaned up, too. Johnson wastes too many steps at the stem of the route, especially on routes when the receiver breaks off real bad. This is 2nd and 11. Johnson takes a traditional backpedal. The corner guesses and turns to run the sideline, even though the receiver doesn’t offer any indication he’s trying to torch him. After the receiver breaks, Johnson takes five additional steps before he maneuvers back to the ball. The receiver has caught the pass and is turned up field by the time he gets back. Over the years, Texans fans have seen Kareem Jackson give up so many super easy catches just like this.
Without short area quickness, Johnson must learn how to use his hands to impede and disrupt the receiver’s route. He doesn’t stop or break on the ball well enough. His hands need to guide him to find the light switch. Until he figures it out, if he ever does, he’s going to give up plenty of short, easy catches when the receiver breaks back to the ball.
This is how it needs to look all the time. Johnson is able to square up the receiver’s release. He shuffles and meets the receiver at his stem. He actually has his head and hands in the correct place. When the receiver shoves to create separation, Johnson is able to pull him back into him as they run laterally through the center of the field.
Until Johnson learns how to play man coverage with hands and physicality, he’s going to be devoured by quick receivers who will run him off the line and leave him scurrying in place as they cut back to the ball, or he’ll get chewed up by receivers who are able to create free releases off the line of scrimmage and run unhindered downfield.
Against fade routes, Johnson has the size and speed to run with receivers. He turns well and moves like an open faucet. He just doesn’t play the ball well at the catch point. In his career at Kentucky, Johnson only had one interception and eleven pass breakups. He allowed seven touchdowns, per Sports Info Solutions.
On 3rd and 7, Johnson is worried about an inside move picking up the first down. When the receiver stutters off the line of scrimmage, he turns to put himself between the wideout and the quarterback in order to eviscerate the options the receiver has available to him. The ball catcher reacts by running down the sideline. Johnson turns and runs with him nicely, but once the receiver expands his route wide, he’s able to create a little bit of separation and get ahead of Johnson. Johnson turns to play the ball by watching the receiver. He misjudges the ball and raises his arm too early. The receiver is able to run off his coverage and let the ball drop into his basket.
Here’s more man coverage versus a fade, but this sees Johnson utilize a traditional backpedal. He breaks, turns, and runs at the correct moment, displaying adequate acceleration. He just doesn’t find the football. When the receiver squeezes the brakes to slow down, Johnson doesn’t. He looks downfield for the ball instead of reacting to the receiver to find the ball. He’s oblivious with his back turned to it and fortunate the receiver doesn’t come down with this one.
Here he’s beat by sideline speed. The stutter leaves him thinking inside route, giving the receiver a free outside release. The ball is underthrown, which allows Johnson to come back and play the ball. At least here Johnson plays the receiver well and is able to use his size to maul the receiver when the catch is attempted.
Again, short area foot speed is a problem for the second round pick. Johnson is going to get beat deep sometimes. He must learn how to play the ball better so he can recover when routes like this happen. This needs to be the norm, not a rare occurrence.
The lack of physicality is seen on Johnson’s tackle attempts as well. Johnson doesn’t tackle players well head up. He loves to make tackles when the perfect opportunity arises, when the receiver has his back to the ball and is walloped right when he makes the catch. That’s when Johnson tackles.
He struggles to bring ball carriers down when he faces them head up. He second-guesses and stops his momentum to square up ball carriers. When he does this, the lack of quickness hurts him again. He can’t react and meet the ball carrier again. Johnson needs to be a bullet.
There’s a general lack of feel for how to come from the cornerback position to tackle. Johnson doesn’t understand pursuit angles. He walks and then tries to sprint back to the ball, which allows touchdowns and big plays. He doesn’t know how to fill and fit in the run game. He gets blocked way too easily for a guy his size. He needs to learn how to utilize it to get around blocks, be the hammer, and make plays.
Johnson is a size prospect. He has too many holes in his game to expect him to be able to start as a boundary corner right away. He doesn’t have the quickness to play in the slot either. This is a problem. The Texans didn’t improve their interior pass rush this offseason. They signed Bradley Roby, who is a liability as a CB1 and struggles against the best receivers in the league. Johnathan Joseph is old and can’t stick on downfield routes anymore. The Texans needed a cornerback who can contribute right now, right away. Johnson isn’t the man coverage corner they needed.
The one way Johnson should see the field in 2019 is in Cover Three and Cover Four. In these coverages, where Johnson takes on a quadrant, turns, runs along the sideline, and then plays the ball from there, he could be playable as a rookie. He understands zone coverage well. He knows how to peel off from one receiver to another and find the ball, as seen in this Citrus Bowl interception and that previous flat route tackle.
Even then, Johnson still doesn’t have the ball skills required to shut down receivers along the sideline. Cover Three and Cover Four are the best chances for Johnson to contribute, but it still isn’t a flawless or safe option.
Lonnie Johnson is length and strength. He needs to learn how to utilize it. A body. A project. Hopefully his rookie season plays out like the first hour of a comic movie, with him spending 2019 figuring out how to use his powers. Maybe one day he will, but for now, Johnson will be a liability on the field unless he’s used in specific zone coverage situations.
In 2019, get ready for Roby and Joseph, with Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Aaron Colvin in the slot, as the Texans’ pass defense prays that Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt find a way to get to the quarterback.