Everyone expects players chosen during the first two days of the NFL draft to produce.
It’s when teams get production out of their Day 3 picks, however, that can push a draft grade from average to good, or good to great.
Two years ago, the Bills hit on one of their Day 3 picks by selecting linebacker Matt Milano in the fifth round. Last year, the team added what they hope will be a long-term contributor in the fourth round with slot cornerback Taron Johnson.
His promising rookie season ended prematurely due to shoulder surgery on Dec. 5. Before being shut down, Johnson appeared in 11 games, making two starts and finishing with 42 tackles, three passes defensed and one interception. On its own, that would have been enough to be considered a promising first year. It’s more impressive, though, considering Johnson was injured in the season opener, and gutted his way through the rest of his season.
“Before the game, I kind of tried to get my mind right,” he said of how he continued to play while injured. “I know I'm going to be hurting a little bit, so it's just kind of one of those things where I'm just like, I ain't going to say the word, but in my head, I'm just like (expletive) it. That's how it is. That's exactly how I feel for every play.”
That mentality quickly made an impression on the coaching staff.
“He’s a dog – in a good way,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said a month into the 2018 season. “That’s what you have to have. You notice him. You feel him out there. For a young player to have made that type of presence known from that nickel position is huge for our defense.”
Speaking the day after the 2018 season ended, Johnson said he had just started some preliminary rehabilitation on his shoulder.
“It feels good right now as far as the progression,” he said. “I feel like I'm going to be back at 100 percent soon.”
Johnson could be limited in spring practices as he recovers, but expects to be 100 percent by the start of training camp. Adding upper-body strength is one of Johnson’s goals this offseason.
“Getting a little bigger, definitely stronger in my upper body. With that happening, I feel like I still can play the way I want to play,” he said.
Among 50 cornerbacks who played at least 20 percent of their team’s snaps in the slot, Johnson was ranked 29th by analytics website Pro Football Focus. In 231 coverage snaps, he was targeted 41 times and allowed 27 catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterbacks had a passer rating of 81.4 when throwing at Johnson, which ranked 10th best.
“I'm happy, to a certain extent, about how I played,” he said. “There's definitely a lot of things I want to work on, just focusing on being a better player. Listening to coach McDermott … something that stuck out to me, is just when you think you got it, you don't got it. So that's just what I'm taking with me. I understand I had a solid rookie (season), but I just know I have to keep with the growth mindset.
“I’m just excited and want to continue. Hopefully, year two is something special. They did a lot with me this year. It was my rookie season, so hopefully I can just progress and just continue to get better.”
With Johnson playing a key role, the Bills’ secondary had a great statistical showing in 2018. Buffalo allowed just 179.2 passing yards per game, 15 yards per game better than any other team in the league.
“I'm excited to see what all of us can do,” Johnson said. “Everyone has shown flashes of what can come in the future if we continue to build and not get complacent. There's a lot of work I have to do, especially, getting healthy, just learning the most I can about the defense. Just the fact that we all are so young – I definitely see the future very bright here in Buffalo.”