PITTSFORD – The fourth round lately has been a wasteland for the Buffalo Bills during the NFL Draft. Twice in the past four years, the team hasn’t even had a pick.
You have to go back to Nigel Bradham in 2012 to find a player chosen in the fourth round who became a contributing starter in Buffalo.
Taron Johnson may not be listed as a starter this season, but he’s got a chance to be a contributor. Johnson, the 121st overall selection out of Weber State, has worked in with the starting defense when it goes to its nickel (five defensive backs) package. That’s significant, since in today’s NFL teams play nickel more than 50 percent of the time.
Johnson is primarily in competition with fifth-year veteran Phillip Gaines, but there are a slew of other young cornerbacks on the roster vying for jobs. Outside of 10th-year veteran Vontae Davis and Gaines, the Bills don’t have another cornerback with more than three years of experience.
“A lot of guys trying to get after it,” Johnson said.
The Bills particularly like Johnson’s ability to do that as a tackler. Coach Sean McDermott called that a “lost art” among defensive backs after Johnson was drafted. That means his best may be yet to come, since the team hasn’t done a live-tackling practice to this point.
“Playing the nickel position, you've got to be physical and pretty quick, and I think I have all those traits,” Johnson said after Sunday’s practice at St. John Fisher College. “When you put on my film, I'm a tackler. I try to think of myself as a corner who plays safety.”
Johnson finished with 49 tackles, three interceptions, nine passes defensed and two sacks as a senior captain in 2017. He was named the Big Sky Conference Defensive MVP after leading the Wildcats to a school-record 11 wins, top-10 national ranking and two wins in the FCS playoffs.
The Bills are making a projection with Johnson. The only time he played in the slot during college is when he would follow a receiver he was responsible for in man coverage there.
“It is new, but I feel like my (knowledge) is going up, especially from OTAs,” he said. “I’ve got a lot better understanding of what we’re doing on defense, and that’s only going to go up.”
It’s not uncommon for a rookie to feel overwhelmed at this point in his NFL career. Johnson, though, said his “head’s not spinning too much” because of what he learned in the spring.
“I had it in my head the whole time between the spring and coming here,” he said.
Johnson is trying to keep his time with the starters in perspective.
“I mean, it's cool,” he said. “I'm just trying to make sure I know the defense and have everyone trust me. That's just the biggest deal for me, making sure I know what I have to do in order to help the team.”
Safety Jordan Poyer told the team’s official website that Johnson is being asked to fill a “tough job.”
“In this defense, (it’s) really like playing safety with probably a little more athletic ability being in the slot,” Poyer said. “Taron is able to do that. He’s still young and has a lot to learn and we try to help him as much as we can to have him ready because when his number is called we’re going to need him to be ready to play.”