Cornerback Kevin Johnson is one of the most intriguing, under-the-radar players on the Buffalo Bills’ roster entering training camp.
The fifth-year free-agent signee from the Houston Texans is a former first-round draft pick with elite athleticism.
Before the 2015 draft, Johnson had a vertical jump of 41.5 inches, tied for fourth best among all cornerbacks at the NFL scouting combine over the past 10 years. His 20-yard short shuttle time of 3.89 was tied for second best among corners in the last five years and tied for fourth best in the last 10 years.
What does it mean? Johnson has phenomenal short-area quickness.
Playing in the Bills’ zone-heavy defense, that should be an asset in helping him close on receivers, break up passes and maybe make some interceptions.
“What I love about Kevin,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said last month, “is that he’s gotten his hands on some footballs the last few weeks here and taken the ball away a few times. So, his mindset has been impressive just from his mental toughness and his focus at this point. That’s been good to see.”
Johnson, however, enters training camp as an underdog to win a starting job. And he’s not even a sure thing to make the roster, given the competition the Bills have at the position.
The issue for the former 16th overall pick from Wake Forest has been bad luck with injuries, which have kept him from capitalizing on all that ability.
Johnson had foot and wrist fractures as a rookie. He had a strong start to the 2016 season but then suffered a more serious fracture to the same left foot that put him on the injured-reserve list for the final 10 games of the season. He saw extensive action in 2017 but then missed the final four games with a sprained knee. Then he missed the last 15 games of last season due to two concussions.
“All that stuff is behind me,” Johnson said when he signed with the Bills. “Obviously, as you know, I had bumps in the road as far as injuries were concerned, but I'm feeling healthy and all those things are behind me.”
Johnson worked with the second team in the spring. The Bills gave him a one-year, prove-it contract worth $3 million this season. If he can stay healthy, he could play his way into a much better deal next offseason.
“He was at Wake down the road from where we were with the Carolina Panthers,” McDermott said. “So we knew of Kevin and held him in a high regard coming out. It was, to me, no surprise that he got drafted where he did, in terms of the round and the spot.”
“He’s had a tough career in terms of his challenges with injuries,” McDermott said. “That said, what I’ve seen to this point is a young man who is extremely focused, works extremely hard, is smart, plays the game the way that we want it to be played. And as I mentioned earlier, he’s gotten his hands on some footballs this spring to this point, which is important for us in terms of taking the ball away and playing good defense. We’ll see more when the pads come on, it’s still early. To this point I’ve loved his mindset.”