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Defensive back Kevin Johnson ready for 'fresh start' with Bills

Part of the job for the Buffalo Bills’ media relations department is preparing player biographies.

Players are asked for an interesting or unique story from their lives, which can then sometimes serve as the basis for a media interview. One of the first players communications coordinator Qadeer Morgan interviewed this offseason was cornerback Kevin Johnson.

They got through the one-word answer part of the bio easily enough, but when it came time for a story, Johnson drew a blank.

What’s wrong, Johnson was jokingly asked after Sunday’s training-camp practice at St. John Fisher College – are you just not that interesting?

“Yeah, man,” Johnson answered with a smile. “I'm a really down-to-earth guy. I think if you ask guys on the team, they're getting to know me better and better every day – they'd probably say the same thing. I just like to have fun, be in good spirits, play football, and have good relationships with people.”

The truth is, there are plenty of interesting storylines when it comes to Johnson, like how he transformed from a 5-foot, 96-pound high school freshman to a first-round NFL draft pick. The biggest, though, focuses on how he’s looking to resurrect an NFL career that’s been sidetracked by injury.

The Bills are giving him that shot, signing him to a one-year, prove-it contract in March that’s worth up to $3 million.

“It's good to be out here,” Johnson said. “I'm playing football again. I love playing ball. It don't matter where I'm doing it – I'm a ball player. But definitely being out here with the Buffalo Bills, getting a fresh start is great for me. I'm enjoying every single day.”

Johnson, who turns 27 next week, was released by the Houston Texans in early March after the team elected not to pick up the fifth-year option on his contract, which would have paid him about $9 million. He met with several teams as an unrestricted free agent, but ultimately chose the Bills in large part because of John Butler.

The Bills’ defensive backs coach, Butler held the same role for the Texans during Johnson’s first three NFL seasons.

“I respect him as a great coach,” Johnson said. “When he coached me in Houston, I knew when I come to work, he was going to be ready to make me better. … When you're learning from him, you can feel it. You can understand what he's saying. He's great at explaining things to you. He really understands what's going on on the football field.”

Butler knows Johnson’s skills about as well as anybody in the NFL, but more than that, he also had a good idea of how he would fit into a Bills’ locker room that under coach Sean McDermott puts a high emphasis on character.

Butler learned in his time with Johnson about the professional approach the cornerback brings to the game.

“Preparing on your own, taking care of your body, mentally preparing yourself for the opponents you're playing and the schemes that we're running – that all takes time outside of just the meetings and stuff we do with them as coaches,” he said. “You have to be somebody who is dedicated to your craft when you're away from the building. I know just from working with him and the feedback that he would provide coaching him in the past, that was something that he not only did, but really enjoyed.”

Bills defensive back Kevin Johnson was limited to just one game last season with the Houston Texans (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Overcoming the odds

Growth spurts before his junior and senior years of high school transformed Johnson from that scrawny freshman into a 6-foot, 185-pounder who rushed for 1,220 yards and 15 touchdowns on 137 carries as a senior in 2009 at River Hill High School in Clarksville, Md.

The following year, Johnson was one of just three true freshmen to appear in a game at Wake Forest. Playing at that age in the Atlantic Coast Conference gave him the confidence he could one day make it to the next level.

“I believe in myself and I know what I can do as a football player,” he said. “My confidence is always going to be through the roof.”

Johnson was declared academically ineligible and redshirted during the 2011 season at Wake, but came back to start 12 games the following year. He was an All-ACC honorable-mention selection in 2013, leading the Demon Deacons with 15 passes defensed and three interceptions. As a redshirt senior in 2014, he was an All-ACC second-team selection as chosen by the conference’s coaches, finishing his college career with 35 passes defensed – the fourth most in school history. Johnson played in 47 career games at Wake, with 41 starts.

McDermott, who was serving as the Carolina Panthers’ defensive coordinator at the time, closely scouted Johnson, but it was the Texans who chose him with the 16th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. He became just the third first-round pick from Wake Forest in the Super Bowl era.

“He's very, very quick. He's got elite quickness and transition ability,” Butler said. “Playing in the secondary, being able to transition and close and recover is a critical element. He's got good size and length. He's got very good football acumen and understanding of the game, and he's got good ball skills, so all the things that I believe in terms of the skills you're looking for, he has them.”

Bills receiver John Brown, another of the team’s free-agent additions this offseason, has crossed paths with Johnson before.

"He’s real talented. I’m happy to work with him, because he’s real competitive,” Brown said. “We most definitely got a steal for one year. It’ll show up. I know he’s going to play big.”

Kevin Johnson was a first-round pick by the Houston Texans in 2015. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Injury troubles

Johnson’s NFL career got off to a promising start. He started 10 times and appeared in all 16 regular-season games for the Texans in 2015, seeing time at all four positions in the secondary. He also started Houston’s playoff game, making three tackles in a loss to the Chiefs.

Johnson never really built on that rookie year, primarily because he kept getting hurt. He suffered a broken foot during a 26-23 overtime win against Indianapolis in Week 6 of the 2016 season. He played through the injury to make a career-high 10 tackles in the game, but landed on injured reserve soon after.

A sprained knee cost him four games early in the 2017 season, but a far more serious issue arose last year. During Houston’s second preseason game against San Francisco, Johnson’s head slammed off the turf and left him with a concussion.

He recovered in time for Houston’s season opener, but a helmet-to-helmet collision with New England Patriots receiver Cordarrelle Patterson left Johnson with another concussion. Replays of the hit are difficult to watch, as Johnson immediately falls limp to the turf. Even in an era of increased awareness surrounding player safety, concussions remain an occupational hazard.

If that has put any doubt or worry into Johnson, he’s not saying so publicly. He said he can’t allow himself to think about the risk while he’s playing.

“That's just the sport,” Johnson said. “There are things that happen. Before I got those concussions in a very close amount of time, I hadn't had any. You go out there and play the game the way you know how to play the game and it's going to be what it's going to be.”

The Texans placed Johnson on injured reserve after his concussion against New England, meaning that game ended up being the final one of his Texans career.

“Being cut, that's just part of the business,” he said. “I'm going on year five. I understand how the business works. … All my injury stuff is behind me. I know what I can do as a football player, so just me coming out here trying to do the best I can and get better every single day, work with the guys, do my best with the coaches and the teammates, that's the most important thing to me. That's all I'm thinking about.”

Johnson brushes off the “injury-prone” label, saying he can’t control what others say, but after playing just 19 games over the past three seasons, people are naturally going to slap that on him.

“I think there’s (injury) history and that’s the concerning piece in some of these cases, like with Kevin’s case,” McDermott said. “History sometimes foretells future events and that’s what we have to be aware of. At the end of the day, availability is key. We have to be a healthy football team and we need these players on the field.”

To that end, team owners Terry and Kim Pegula made a big investment in building an $18 million performance center. Coupled with top-notch medical and sports science departments, the team believes that will greatly aid injury prevention.

In Johnson’s case with concussions, though, it comes down to something more simple. Even though there is no magic, injury-prevention elixir, Butler said better technique will at least put Johnson in a better position to try and avoid them.

“I think he understands that the key to his success long term moving forward in the NFL is his ability to play well, but also stay healthy,” Butler said. “That comes with taking care of your body off the field, but it also comes with refining and improving your techniques on the field so that he's putting himself in the best possible position to make a play, but also play with the proper player safety – keeping your head up, keeping your body in a good position, controlling your body.”

“That's the obligation of us as coaches. We're trying to win the game, but we're also trying to teach the players how to play in today's football environment, and make it as physical as they can be, but also teaching proper safety techniques. Injuries are going to happen in football that are totally out of your control, but it's the ones that we still think you can control, relating to the head, that we have to take precautions with how we're coaching players and then they have to take responsibility of applying those techniques and that safety to the game when they go out there and play.”

A crowded competition

Johnson has built on a strong set of spring practices in the early portion of training camp. He’s spent time with the starters at outside cornerback and also played nickel with the second-team defense. After he played mostly on the boundary with the Texans, working inside has been an adjustment – as has adapting to a new defensive scheme – but Johnson’s path to a roster spot will depend on that versatility.

“We value that. Basically anybody that plays corner for us has to have the skillset to be able to play inside,” Butler said. “To have that versatility that on game day you can play outside and play inside, that obviously adds value when you're talking about only having 46 guys up on the game-day roster.”

After Tre’Davious White, it remains to be seen who those cornerbacks on the game-day roster will be. A pass defense that allowed a league-best 179.2 yards per game added competition at the position this offseason in the form of not just Johnson, but fellow veteran E.J. Gaines. Slot cornerback Taron Johnson and undrafted free agent Levi Wallace, both of whom are coming off promising rookie years, are also back.

That has given Butler quality depth, and allows him to experiment with players in different roles to see where they best fit.

Johnson is the great unknown in that mix. Will he again show the physical traits that made him a first-round draft pick, or will injuries ultimately derail his career? It’s one of the more compelling storylines to follow – even if Johnson couldn’t come up with an interesting angle for his bio.

“All those experiences, being small, going through injuries, that's what has made me the person and the player I am today,” he said. “It's made me mentally tough, going through all the things I've been through. Once you get out there with the guys and the coaches, you earn their respect. Once you get on the field, football's football. It's 11-on-11, same thing as little league, same thing as high school and college. You go out there and make plays.”

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