Cleveland Browns: Grading the John Johnson III signing
Grading the Cleveland Browns splash signing
The Cleveland Browns landed one of the top free agents on the market in safety John Johnson III. The 26-year-old (or 25, depending on where you look) starred for the Los Angeles Rams over the past four seasons and is heading to Cleveland on a three-year deal worth under $34 million, paying him just over $11 million per year on average.
There’s no update on the structure of his contract, but that average salary would make him the ninth-highest paid safety in the league, which is certainly far less than he’s worth. Just how good was this signing, and what grade do the Browns get for it?
Johnson was a decent athlete out of Boston College, and was the 91st overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Since then, he’s been one of the best defensive backs in the league. Calling him productive is an understatement; he was third on the team in tackles as a rookie, second in 2018, and first in 2020. He had 11 passes defended in both 2017 and 2018, and had eight in 2020. A shoulder injury limited him to only six games, but he had two interceptions during that time.
He was Pro Football Focus’s third-highest-graded safety in 2020 and has earned an overall grade of at least 80 in each of his three full seasons. He’s excellent against both the run and the pass and is one of the smartest and most instinctive defenders in the league. He was a team captain last season and also served as the defense’s signal-caller, a role he will likely fill in Cleveland as well.
The Browns had the NFL’s worst cumulative safety grade in 2020, and that was with Ronnie Harrison’s solid 74.7 mark. Going from Andrew Sendejo to an elite player like Johnson is an incredible upgrade, one that will pay dividends over the next three seasons.
Johnson can provide high-level play in the box at strong safety, in the slot at corner, and back deep at free. His addition gives Cleveland three safeties who can function in both safety roles, and two that can play slot corner well, the other being Grant Delpit, provided he can return from his torn Achilles.
If that happens, the Browns will have three versatile safeties, which is exactly what defensive coordinator Joe Woods needs. He primarily runs cover-3, but wants to be able to mix and match schemes from week to week, series to series, and down to down. The goal is not to be limited by personnel, but unleashed by it.
Woods wants to eventually run a base dime system, which would feature only one linebacker on the field at a time. That linebacker doesn’t even have to be a true linebacker; it can be a box safety, or ROVER, such as Karl Joseph, Keanu Neal, or someone like USC’s Talanoa Hufanga in the draft. Swapping linebackers out for box safeties doesn’t make you significantly worse against the run, and it comes with the added bonus of that player not being slow or bad in pass coverage.
The addition of Johnson (and the return of Delpit) turns the Browns safety room from a major weakness to a huge strength. That’s team-building in action.
Final grade: A+
You didn’t see that coming?
Johnson was the best safety on the market, and likely the best defensive player available. The Browns landed him for a salary that is borderline top-10, and could be overtaken by Anthony Harris in APY.
Safety was arguably the team’s biggest need this offseason, and not only did they fill it with the best available player, but they also did it at a relatively low cost. His contract will conveniently end at the same time as Delpit’s rookie deal, which would arm the team with the money to extend the younger player. It’s hardly surprising that this front office is on top of things though, is it?