Leonard Johnson got an up-close look at how Sean McDermott went to work last season when he played for the Buffalo Bills' new head coach in Carolina.
What he saw is a big reason why Johnson followed McDermott to Western New York.
"The way he carried himself throughout the building, being in meetings with the defense and then sitting in on specific meetings ... it was almost as if he had to prepare himself for this since Day One," Johnson said of McDermott, the Panthers' defensive coordinator last year. "I love the demeanor. I love the way he handled us last year as a group and as a defense, and I’m expecting him to do the same as a team."
Johnson played in 10 games last season for the Panthers, making 30 tackles. Given the state of the Bills' depth chart, he could play a prominent role at cornerback in 2017. The Bills let No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore go in free agency to New England, and also released slot defender Nickell Robey-Coleman. That leaves Ronald Darby and Kevon Seymour penciled in as starters, and while it's likely the Bills will make cornerback a top priority in the draft, Johnson may still be Robey-Coleman's replacement.
"I just love being able to go out and play with confidence in my strengths," Johnson said in a conference call with the Western New York media this week. "Any time you can go out and play without thinking, you’re playing fast and you enjoy playing the game. When coach introduced the defense to me, it was almost like ‘man, it’s simple,’ but at the same time it can be a little bit challenging learning the terminology and just knowing where to be at the right time, but it eliminates all the thinking of it.
"I’m looking forward to getting back and coming in and re-learning the defense as well. This time, I have a full offseason to compete and to really soak up terms in regards to the defense that will be used this year."
Johnson signed with Carolina in July 2016, but wasn't able to participate in a game until October. He started the year on the reserve/non-football injury list after having suffered an Achilles injury in March. That McDermott believed in him so much to sign him despite that injury shows the confidence he has in Johnson.
"I can say, honestly, I’m ready to rock," Johnson said. "I’ve never really played much zone, so picking up the scheme and being thrown in the mix and learning on the run, I feel pretty good about some of the things that we did as a team. I did some good things in regards to my individual play. Coach made it real simple. He simplified things so I was able to get a better grasp of the defense and then go out and play."
The Panthers went through a similar situation as the Bills have this year in letting Gilmore go when Carolina took the franchise tag off top cornerback Josh Norman and watched him sign with Washington. Johnson called it a "transition period" for the Panthers, who were forced to start a pair of rookies at cornerback.
"Once those young guys got settled in, they made plays on the back end and they played big-time football the last part of the season," he said. "Any time you get young guys, you’ve got to go through some growing pains and they kind of look to the older guys for some confidence. ... I’m not sure of the situation here in Buffalo, but if it is a transitional period, any way that I can help, I’m just coming in to help."
Although the Panthers slumped to a 6-10 season the year after a Super Bowl appearance, there were signs the defense started to get things right late in the year. In three of Carolina's last four games, the Panthers held opponents to 17 points or less.
"The way he handled the season when things weren’t going well, he stuck to his guns," Johnson said of McDermott. "Our defense actually started playing really, really well down the backstretch. I’ve seen it."
McDermott isn't the only coach on the Bills' staff with whom Johnson is familiar. He started his NFL career with his hometown Tampa Bay Buccaneers, appearing in all 48 games from 2012-14. Current Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier was the Bucs' defensive coordinator in 2014, while the Bills' defensive backs coach, Gill Byrd, was the Bucs' cornerbacks coach that year.
"It made the decision a little easier," Johnson said. "I wanted to play in that same system and kind of master the technique, from a nickel standpoint, within the scheme to kind of put me at an advantage as opposed to going to a different team, running a whole different scheme. It was almost like when coach got the head coaching job – if Buffalo works out for me, I’m going to go play for them because I know that two years in the same system, not only can I help the team win, but I’ll be able to do some nice things for myself as well."