Browns safety John Johnson III has played out of position for two years, but he is still a true talent.
Fans and writers have been critical of Cleveland Browns safety John Johnson III, saying he’s washed up and overpaid, but their wrath is misplaced.
It’s true that Johnson has far underperformed. But the truth is that he is playing out of position, because for whatever reason Andrew Berry did not give Joe Woods a full complement of defensive players the past two seasons, and Johnson has really not been put in a position to succeed.
With the Los Angeles Rams, Johnson was a star safety, graded third overall by Pro Football Focus. However, if Browns fans thought they were getting a premier Cover 2 safety, they were bound to be disappointed, and here’s why: Pro Football Focus doesn’t claim to be a talent evaluation service.
They claim they are grading each player in terms of how well they carried out their assignment, as interpreted by the graders employed by PFF. So what kind of assignments was John Johnson getting in Los Angeles?
Johnson was primarily a box safety, which is to say that he played up front with the guys who are playing the run and establishing the zone as the first line of defense against the short passing game. That is, the defensive linemen and linebackers are always in the box, and the safety might be in the box, or he might be used in deep coverage depending on the situation.
In many cases, there are two safeties, and if they both play deep, that’s known as cover two. However, if one plays in close, that player is a box safety and that is where JJ3 excelled. The Rams had Jalen Ramsay and Darious Williams as their twin shutdown corners, both of whom were rock solid, so they were not afraid to go man-to-man and let Johnson play in the box most of the time.
Hence, Johnson led the Rams with 105 tackles. The second-place player was linebacker Troy Reeder with 81. So Johnson was definitely a dominant player. Now, does that sound like a free safety cover guy? Not exactly.
Those guys don’t make tackles because opposing quarterbacks don’t like to challenge them. Johnson was stopping the run and taking care of business on short passes underneath, much like a linebacker does. By contrast, shutdown cover guys Ramsay and Williams each had only 41 tackles. Wide receivers just didn’t put up numbers against those two. Generally, Johnson was not needed in deep coverage.
With the Browns, the secondary had Ronnie Harrison and Grant Delpit, who are also strong safeties. Johnson was the best candidate of the three to make the shift. Johnson is now a free safety, not a box safety, and not a strong safety.
Something to consider about the free safety position is that speed does matter because the free safety has to help to contain wide receivers, most of whom run 4.3 or 4.4 in the NFL. Head smarts can only make up for so much.
Johnson was a 4.61 guy in 2017 and he probably isn’t getting any faster. This fan is not a genius as a talent evaluator, but the numbers speak for themselves. It’s blatantly obvious that Johnson is a legitimate star as a strong/box safety, but he is only average playing as a free safety for the Browns.
Don’t blame Johnson. That makes about as much sense as being angry with Baker Mayfield for being only 6-foot-1. They should have figured that out when they signed him.
From a football standpoint, the obvious solution is for the Browns to find a free safety to pair with Johnson. How about it, Mr. Berry? Every year, fans clamor for more wide receivers with similar qualifications to Anthony Schwartz (speed, speed, speed). But what the Browns really need is help in the defensive backfield and defensive line, because they are truly decrepit.
The main problem with Johnson is his contract, which makes it impossible to play him this season, impossible to cut him, and impossible to trade him. According to Overthecap, the full value of his deal is $22.0 million with one year remaining, and $8.5 million deferred until 2024. Thus, his cap number for 2023 is $13.5 million, and the $8.5 million is in the form of “voidable year” bonus money, which Johnson has already banked but which is charged to the 2024 cap.
What about cutting Johnson?
Well, the Browns are going to pay him $12.6 million if they cut him. If they wait until after June 1, their 2023 charge would be reduced to $3.75 million (cha-ching!), but in 2024, the cap would be charged $9.75 million, so that really doesn’t help, assuming they intend to play football and contend in 2024. If Mr. Berry makes that move, count on a scorching article the next day from this corner because that would be beyond stupid.
To trade Johnson, the Browns would have to pay down his contract to the point where he would be affordable to a new team. If some team valued Johnson’s services at $8 million, say, the Browns would have to cough up $14 million somehow to pay down his deal to that point. This also is horrible.
Yet another option is to negotiate a new long-term deal, which would allow the Browns to take a first-year discount and kick the can down the road. The “voidable years” come about when the contract runs for two or three years, but the bonus money is spread out over five years.
This amounts to a discount as long as the player remains active with the Browns. However, when the player is finally cut, traded, or retires, the remaining bonus money comes due in that year. If the Browns extend Johnson by two years and, say, $25 million, they would absorb the remaining $22 million of the old deal and wind up with a new deal for three years and $47 million, with bonus money spread over five years.
The first-year cap hit would be something like $6 million, with huge charges successfully deferred until the 2025 season, which we do not even want to think about. This sounds nuts, but Johnson and his agent have leverage.
If the Browns are trying to keep the window open for two years, this might be the way to go. They cannot afford to keep Johnson, but they cannot afford to shoo away talent and pay millions of dollars to have someone like him play for another team. Whatever happens, he should be playing strong safety on a team with strong man-to-man corners, and he should not be a free safety.