Whenever a new coach takes over in the NFL, it’s not unusual for some of his former players to follow along.
With the Buffalo Bills this season, that’s the case with cornerback Leonard Johnson, who played last year under Sean McDermott with the Carolina Panthers. Although they spent just one season together, it’s clear Johnson made a strong impression on McDermott.
“The thing that I love about Leonard is how tough he is,” the coach said last week during mandatory minicamp. “He’s like a little Tyson in terms of just the way he approaches the game. He gives us an edge on defense, which is important.”
That McDermott picked Mike Tyson as a comparison was no accident. Johnson grew up in Clearwater, Fla. closely following the youngest-ever heavyweight champion’s career.
“We’re both sort of short and stocky – and aggressive,” Johnson said. “Mike Tyson was fearless. He knew every time he stepped in the ring, he was going to dominate somebody. So to be compared to that, that’s pretty good. But I have to uphold my part.
“I just try to have that mentality. It’s just the will to compete. Being relentless.”
Spring practices aren’t a time for that type of play. Players are in shorts, and hitting is off limits during the workouts. Come training camp, however, that will change.
“I think once guys see that aspect of the game being displayed, it rubs off on people,” Johnson said. “You can't really display that right now because we're in shorts, but once we get padded up, a lot of juices will be flowing and that energy will feed off to other people.”
As the lone defensive player with previous experience in McDermott’s system, Johnson is a valuable resource to his teammates.
“His familiarity with the system certainly helps in terms of his comfort level, and then also helping teach the players around him at times when coaches aren’t around – or on the field, to correct within a drive, that’s important, that ability to do that,” McDermott said. “I remember the thing that sticks out about Leonard was last year, his first game that he played for us, he had a sack or two and you saw the energy and the juice, the toughness – there’s no substitute for that mental and physical toughness that he brings to the table.”
In addition to his sack, Johnson also eight tackles and a pass defensed in his Carolina debut, which came in a 30-20 win over Arizona during Week Eight. The problem was, he didn’t maintain that level of play. Johnson didn’t have any more sacks or passes defensed the rest of season, and failed to top four tackles in any game.
That’s why he’s careful not to let any praise from McDermott go to his head.
“It does feel good, but coach is tough,” Johnson said. “He's hard to please like any other coach. It's nice to know he feels that way, you know what I mean? I don't think he's going to walk around displaying those things. He still wants to see you come out and make sure your body of work is what it is all year round. That's one thing I struggled with in Carolina that I want to kind of put my foot print on this year. Stay consistent. That's my biggest thing. I talk to myself every day about it.”
Johnson “wasn’t as focused,” last season, he said.
“For whatever reason, I just wasn't in the present time,” he said. “That's going to change this year. We have people holding us accountable. It's a fresh start. I have to make an impression on coach to solidify my spot on the team, and impress the other coaches. That's what I'm here doing. That's what we're all out here doing.”
Johnson lined up with the first-team defense as the slot cornerback during the spring, and important position that, while maybe not classified as a starter, figures to get a majority of the snaps. He'll likely have to hold off second-year veteran Kevon Seymour in training camp for that job.
"I'm doing everything I can, not just to help myself, but to help the team," he said. "Collectively, by doing that, we'll all become better. I know we're all competing for a job, and really a spot on this team, but I truly believe the more I do, the more we all do, the better the Bills become."