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Chiefs Film Review: cornerback Lonnie Johnson Jr. has length and physicality

The latest addition to Kansas City’s cornerbacks will add to what should be great competition for playing time.

Seattle Seahawks v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

During the 2022 NFL Draft, the Kansas City Chiefs hammered one particular position group: defensive backs. They drafted five of them — three listed as cornerbacks and two as safeties.

Yet before the dust could even settle from Draft Weekend, Kansas City acquired another: former Houston Texans defensive back Lonnie Johnson Jr. Thee Chiefs traded a conditional seventh-round pick in 2024 for Johnson — who is entering the final season of his rookie deal.

He has played all over the Houston secondary — but it is telling that reports of the transaction labeled him as a cornerback. He will join a crowded room, hoping to emerge from it and play well enough in 2022 to earn a longer-term contract next offseason.

Let’s take a closer look at what we should expect from him.

The basics

Johnson entered the NFL as a second-round selection of the Texans in 2019. He was regarded as a cornerback prospect after playing both corner and safety at Kentucky.

He measured 6 feet 2 and 213 pounds, with 87th-percentile arm length among cornerbacks. He didn’t impress with his 40-yard dash time of 4.52 seconds — but he boasted a 38-inch vertical and 10 feet 9 inches on the broad jump.

In the NFL, Johnson was initially used as a cornerback, playing 70% of his rookie snaps on the outside. In the two years since then, he’s been more versatile; he has played over 50% of his snaps in a free-safety alignment, with 19% as a box player and just 16% at outside cornerback.

Where Johnson fits in with the Chiefs

NFL: Houston Texans at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

All indications point to Johnson playing cornerback for the Chiefs — and that would line up with how his 2021 season ended. In the last three games he played — Weeks 14, 15 and 18 — Johnson was primarily a perimeter cornerback. Those are the games I’m examining.

Johnson is willing to throw around his lengthier, bigger frame as a tackler — triggering downhill quickly and taking good angles towards ball carriers. He is also willing to fly towards the line of scrimmage and set an edge by engaging with an offensive lineman’s block with momentum.

He tends to rely on attacking the runner’s legs and taking them out, rather than wrapping up as often as you’d like to see — which can lead to some inconsistency as a tackler. Per PFF, he missed 23% of his tackle attempts last season.

The length he possesses shows up when he is contesting passes down the field. He knows how to use it, skying and outstretching as much as possible to get a hand on a jump ball. You can see instinctual play; he gets himself in a position to contest without being too physical with the receiver.

He combines his length with closing speed to make him a willing tackler, flying towards out-breaking routes and making the quarterback’s throwing window as tight as possible. He isn’t particularly quick in transitioning from a backpedal to getting downhill — but once he is moving towards his target, he picks up steam.

As I mentioned before, Johnson has played a lot of positions during his young NFL career — and I believe it has delayed his progression in any one of them. His aggressive mindset will lead to falling for double moves — like on this play against Seattle Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf — and there’s also the memorable one from the 2019 Divisional round game, where the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce drew a flag on a red-zone target.

There’s reason to believe more time at one position could help him improve on the patience it takes to play cornerback against pass-happy, big-play offenses.

Besides defense, Johnson’s build and athletic profile has translated to quality special-teams play; he has played at least 125 special-teams snaps in each of his three seasons. Here we see a good block on a punt return.

The bottom line

Johnson doesn’t project to come in and be a starter at cornerback — but he will compete; he is a confident person who is hoping to play well enough in 2022 to earn a bigger deal next offseason.

In a very similar move to the trade for Mike Hughes last offseason, the Chiefs have taken a swing on a highly-drafted cornerback. Hughes didn’t take advantage of the playing time he got in Kansas City. Johnson will have an even tougher path to the field than Hughes did.

That said, the Chiefs made this trade — even after drafting five defensive backs — for a reason. It’ll be interesting to see how they maximize Johnson’s talents during the one year they’re slated to have him.

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