The Buffalo Bills might have found their new nickel cornerback.
The team selected Weber State cornerback Taron Johnson in the fourth round (121st overall) of the NFL Draft on Saturday, a pick announced by Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas at the brink of Niagara Falls.
Johnson, who won the 2017 Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year, recorded 49 tackles, three interceptions and 12 passes defensed in being named a unanimous FCS first-team All-American.
He became just the fourth player in program history to receive a Senior Bowl invite. He is the highest player drafted in school history since Paul McQuistan was selected in the third round (69th overall) in 2006.
Excited to be a buffalo bill!!!!
— Taron Johnson (@Taronj11) April 28, 2018
A 5-foot-11, 192-pounder, Weber’s nfl.com scouting report suggests his best position in the NFL will be in the slot.
“Johnson’s lack of size will drive him into a nickel role where he appears to have the foot quickness and cover talent to handle the job,” analyst Lance Zierlein wrote. “He has to prove that he can play with confidence in his technique rather than grabbing during the route. … He could find an early role as a CB4 before eventually filling the nickel spot.”
That makes him a logical fit for the Bills, who did not re-sign Leonard Johnson, last year’s primary nickel cornerback. He remains a free agent.
“Most of the time if I was following a receiver, that's most of the time when I would go on the inside. At the Senior Bowl, I played a lot of nickel as well, just to show that I could be pretty versatile,” Johnson said. “Whatever spot is open for the Bills, I'm excited to work hard and compete for it.”
Johnson was projected to be a fifth- or sixth-round draft pick by nfl.com. Scouts, Inc. had him rate as the 143rd-best prospect in the draft.
“I kind of thought it would be early on the third day,” Johnson said. “About where I am right now.”
Landing in Buffalo, however, was a surprise. Asked how much contact he had with the Bills leading up to the draft, Johnson said “none until about 20 minutes ago. They just called and told me. It was out of the blue, but I was really excited when I got the call.”
Johnson is familiar with the Bills’ first two picks. He played in the Senior Bowl with Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen, and trained for the draft at EXOS in Pensacola, Fla.
“Those are two great players,” Johnson said.
The Bills have used two of their first five picks on players from the Football Championship Subdivision, the lower level of Division I. That's the first time the Bills have picked an FCS player since Central Arkansas receiver Dez Lewis in the seventh round of the 2015 draft.
“I understand we're a small school and a lot of people might overlook us or might overlook me, but I'm just saying, the talent level is not as different as people might actually think,” Johnson said. “It's pretty close. I'm telling you, if you watch a lot of Weber State football, you're going to see that there are more players coming out of Weber State to the NFL.”
Johnson ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine and did 17 repetitions on the 225-pound bench press. A former wide receiver at Sheldon High School in Sacramento, Calif., he moved to cornerback during his true freshman season, starting
Five games and making 31 tackles, one interception and nine passes defensed in 2014. He finished his career as Weber State’s career leader with 42 passes defensed, and also made 172 tackles and six interceptions. Scouting reports say he doesn’t shy away from contact.
“I feel like it's definitely one of my strong suits,” he said. “I try to play corner more like a safety, if you will. I try to be as aggressive as possible. That's something I'm looking forward to doing in the NFL.”
Johnson said he’ll come to Buffalo with his father, Baron.
“He’s been there for me my whole entire life,” Johnson said. “My mom passed away when I was younger, so he’s just been playing both roles. He’s been a great supporter, and definitely helped me get to where I am.”
Johnson’s mother, Trina, died when he was 9 from breast cancer.
“I really didn’t understand what happened at that time,” Johnson told the Sacramento Bee. “I was really shocked. I definitely miss her a lot. It was a long time ago. I try to remember her. I ask my dad and my sister about her to get a better memory. I can feel her, though.”
Johnson’s sister, Treana, earned all-American honors at BYU in track and field.
The family was together Saturday when Johnson took the call from the Bills.
“It’s kind of surreal at this point,” he said. “It hasn’t really hit me yet. I’m just excited to have this opportunity.”