The key number for Kevin Johnson last year was 16.
That’s the number of games played in the regular season by the Buffalo Bills’ cornerback. Add in his start in the playoff loss to Houston, and Johnson played the entire slate for the first time since he was a rookie in 2015 with the Texans.
Considering Johnson had played just 19 games in the previous three seasons before 2019, that’s a noteworthy accomplishment.
“I believe in myself,” Johnson said, “and I showed I can make it through a season.”
The question now is, did he show the Bills enough to warrant being brought back in 2020?
Johnson came to the Bills on a one-year contract worth $3 million. It was the very definition of a prove-it deal for a player coming off a 2018 season in which he played just one game before missing the rest of the year because of a concussion.
“Those decisions aren't up to me, but I would love to be back here,” Johnson said after the Bills were eliminated from the postseason. “We'll see how all that plays out. We know what type of team we have in this locker room.”
Although Johnson made just one start in the regular season with the Bills, he was a valuable part of the defense as the only true backup outside cornerback behind starters Tre’Davious White and Levi Wallace. Early in the season, Johnson even played some nickel cornerback when Taron Johnson was out with an injury.
Kevin Johnson also finished fifth in special-teams snaps in 2019, behind only Julian Stanford, Daryl Johnson Jr., Siran Neal and Lorenzo Alexander.
That type of versatility is valued highly by the Bills’ front office and coaching staff.
“Kevin, he’s a good corner. He's played well for us and he's going to continue to grow and get better and better,” coach Sean McDermott said before the playoff game against Houston. “Kevin's been out there enough to know exactly what we're trying to get done.”
Johnson, 27, earned more trust as the season progressed. From Weeks 7-10, he played nine snaps or fewer in three of four games. From that point on, however, Johnson played at least 36% of the defensive snaps in every remaining game, with the lone exception being the meaningless season finale against the Jets.
“He fits into our defense,” McDermott said.
Johnson played all 69 defensive snaps against the Texans in the playoffs after Wallace suffered an ankle injury against the Jets. Toward the end of the regular season, the Bills moved to more of a rotation between Wallace and Johnson. That can partially be attributed to some shaky outings by Wallace, but also shows the trust the coaching staff developed in Johnson.
“It was a good experience, but this isn't my first rodeo,” Johnson said of the increased workload. “In this league, it’s going to be like that. You've got to stay in it and handle the ups and downs.”
Given the lack of depth at outside cornerback, it would be a surprise if the Bills didn’t make an effort to bring back Johnson. He proved to be a dependable veteran option capable of stepping in when needed. He also put the injuries that almost derailed his career behind him.
Johnson started 10 times and appeared in all 16 games as a rookie with the Texans, playing all four positions in the secondary. The following year, he suffered a broken foot in Week 6 of the regular season, finishing the game against the Colts but landing on injured reserve soon after.
He missed four games the next year because of a sprained knee. In 2018, he suffered two concussions within a month, the second of which came in the season opener against the New England Patriots and was the result of an ugly, helmet-to-helmet hit that left Johnson limp on the turf.
When he got to the Bills, Johnson downplayed any worry about the long-term impact of those concussions.
“That's just the sport,” he told The Buffalo News during training camp. “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.”