Dave Birkett | Detroit Free Press
He’s never been a Pro Bowler. He plays a position at which the Detroit Lions have one entrenched starter, onegeneral manager Brad Holmes said is deep in this year’s draft. And he likely will command a big enough contract to offset a compensatory draft pick for his new team.
But if the Lions are going to chase one big-name player in free agency next week, that player should be Los Angeles Rams safety John Johnson.
Johnson is the best non-franchise-tagged safety on the market, and at 25 years old has the right blend of talent, youth and familiarity to be a short- and long-term asset for the rebuilding Lions.
The Lions have made it clear they will not be big spenders in free agency, but they don’t plan on sitting out next week’s festivities, either.
FREE AGENT DBs PREVIEW: Rams S Johnson should be one of Lions’ top targets
LINEBACKERS: Lions need a whole lot of work on defense
DEFENSIVE LINE: Why the Lions aren’t likely to spend on the line
Lions coach Dan Campbell said last week the team would be looking for tone-setters when it did its free agent shopping, and that any major addition the Lions make in free agency and the draft will have to have unanimous buy-in from coaches and the front office.
That should be a no-brainer with Johnson, who played for new Lions secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant in L.A. and was a draft pick engineered by Holmes, the Rams’ former college scouting director.
“(Holmes) was a huge John Johnson fan,” Rams GM Les Snead told me in January. “We had got to that late third, and some of the players at positions that we needed more were gone, so now you’re at that point, right, where, are you going to reach for need with players that maybe you have less love for, maybe like them but not as convicted? Or do you take the player that you’re really, really convicted, and maybe have less need?
“And I just remember Brad going, ‘You know what, we take John Johnson, we’re never looking back. He’s going to be good. This guy’s going to help us. Take need out of it.’ And at that point in time, you listen to the wisdom.”
Holmes’ wisdom with Johnson proved right, as Johnson has been one of the best safeties in the NFL four years running.
Pro Football Focus gave Johnson the fourth-highest coverage grade of any safety in the league last season; even beyong that, his presence was noticeable in a stacked Rams defense.
Yes, he benefited from playing in the same secondary as shutdown cornerback Jalen Ramsey. And, yes, he had the best defensive player in all of football, Aaron Donald, causing problems up front. But Johnson was good enough in his own right that he should have plenty of suitors next week.
The Lions, who need a starting safety to pair with Tracy Walker, should be at the front of that line trying to convince Johnson to be a pillar of their rebuild.
He would fit in a defense that likely will deploy plenty of split-safety looks this fall, and he would be the type of tone-setter Campbell covets for his locker room.
TURN THE CORNER: Lions have options at slot CB
In a video posted on the Rams’ website in 2019, Pleasant, L.A.’s former cornerbacks coach, gushed about Johnson’s savageness on the field.
“What I would say is it’s probably his little monster that’s inside of him,” Pleasant said. “Cause he’s a very, very humble, very polite, very well-mannered, but it makes sense when you know the two-fold of the personality.”
In the same video, Johnson showed off the tattoo of Freddy Krueger, the villainous character from the film series, “Nightmare on Elm Street,” which he has on his left thigh.
“Just look at him,” Johnson said. “Like, what is he? He’s like burnt up, he’s a creeper. So he puts on that glove and just wreaks havoc. I love it. I don’t know why. It’s just something that’s always been there.”
The Lions need a player like Johnson to wreak havoc in their secondary with tough times ahead.
They likely will not be very good this fall — and the secondary, in particular, with Walker, Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye as projected starters, could take its share of lumps. But they are approaching their rebuild the right way and need players who can fill dual roles on the field and in the locker room to help usher it along.
Johnson, who has experienced both good (helping the Rams reach the Super Bowl) and bad (Boston College tied for last place in the ACC during his senior season) during his playing career, seems built for that.
He won’t come cheap, and if the Lions are intent on collecting comp picks for Kenny Golladay and Romeo Okwara, he would come at the expense of one of those choices. But he’d provide more all-around value over the length of his contract than waiting for a 2022 fourth-round pick, and there is something to be said for that.
Campbell said one of the benefits of signing familiar faces in free agency is that “you know what their downside is.”
“That’s different than anything else. In free agency you don’t always know what all the warts are,” he said.
With Johnson, there aren’t many warts, which is why the Lions should make a concerted effort to bring him to town.