It’s been a strange career for Lonnie Johnson Jr. He was selected in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft from Kentucky. He didn’t know how to play cornerback. There wasn’t a part of the game he was good at. Press coverage, off-man coverage, man coverage, zone coverage, tackling, playing the ball, stopping the run...none of it. Johnson struggled at every aspect of cornerback play. That being said, he was a laboratory specimen for a Cover Three boundary cornerback.
The Texans tried to play him in the slot. He flailed. Aside from some non-holding penalties against Travis Kelce in Houston’s regular season win over the Chiefs in 2019, the same struggles he had at Kentucky carried over to the NFL. He eventually lost his slot corner position to Vernon Hargreaves III, played special teams, and was occasionally seen in the secondary here and there for the rest of his rookie season.
Last season, Lonnie didn’t talk back and forth on the net entering Houston’s Week One matchup against Kansas City. He
was suspended missed the 34-20 loss to Kansas City after sitting out with a ‘injury’. It was Hargraves, Eric Murray, Justin Reid, John Reid, and Bradley Roby working together to allow 34 points in the Texans’ rematch against Kansas City. Lonnie was on the sideline.
Ain’t no talking back and forth on the net we gone send a msg pic.twitter.com/w2zNDPYFqA— Lonnie Johnson jr. (@Lonnie30johnson) September 10, 2020
Bill O’Brien decided he liked Lonnie at safety, so Lonnie played safety. He spent most of the time playing right field. Standing in the deep middle. Not making plays on the ball. Making tackles as a last resort. The one aspect of Lonnie’s game that improved dramatically was his ability to chase and tackle, something he hadn’t done up to this point of his career. He was also a fairly spry blitzer.
With a new regime and a new defensive coordinator, it was not known what Houston would do about Lonnie in 2021. Would he play outside cornerback, press and play the flat in an archaic defensive scheme, or would he be the other double high safety? So far, all signs point to Lonnie remaining at safety. New defensive coordinator Lovie Smith had the following to say:
“Lonnie has position flexibility. You’re going to hear that word an awful lot. I think it’s safe to say, we see Lonnie as a safety right now. He feels good about that. He’s got excellent size. He’s got a corner skillset, too. Really feel good about him fitting into our defense.”
Lonnie showed something at safety last year, unlike the nothing he showed at cornerback before. If his brain can match his body and he can run his way into more plays, there’s a world where he and Justin Reid combine together to become a fine safety tandem.
There’s still a lot of hoping and praying involved in this. At least for now, the Texans have a plan for Lonnie. From JUCO star to outside cornerback to slot cornerback to safety, all Lonnie Johnson Jr. may need is a little bit of stability and a known role. Lovie Smith may provide exactly that.