Every Detroit Lions fan felt a sigh of relief once news broke that their reliable No. 2 cornerback, Rashean Mathis, was re-signed on a two-year, $3.5 million deal last week. With Mathis' return, the Lions can put away the panic button and have another solid year (or two) of production with him and Darius Slay on the field together (barring any injuries). However, Mathis is still 34 years old, and the Lions are going to need to plan ahead if they want to soften the blow from his inevitable retirement.
FWIW, I asked Mathis on the call if he views his role as replacement grooming at this point. He said "Oh yeah, definitely." #Lions— Michael Rothstein (@mikerothstein) March 19, 2015
Mathis is the epitome of a team player, and he takes pride in being a teacher/role model for these young players. He knows what's asked of him, and now may be a better time than ever for the Lions to draft his eventual replacement in the early rounds.
Caldwell said this is a good draft for lineman, corners and running backs.— Tim Twentyman (@ttwentyman) March 25, 2015
One of my favorite prospects in this year's draft is Wake Forest cornerback Kevin Johnson. He has a nice frame (6-foot-0, 188 pounds) and all the makings of a first-round pick.
Johnson had a slight decline in production as a senior, but I believe it has more to do with teams gaining more respect for him rather than having an actual down year.
At the NFL Combine, Johnson impressed teams on and off the field. During interviews, he wanted everyone to know that he can play in any scheme and stated that he believes he is the best cornerback in this year's draft. I don't know about you guys, but I love to see a kid with that much confidence.
As far as drills were concerned, Johnson posted the second-best 20-second shuttle time and was tied for second behind Byron Jones (44.5 inches) with a 41.5-inch vertical jump. He may not have the elite long-speed that some teams are looking for, but he's incredibly explosive with elite movement skills.
Johnson was often asked to play in off-man coverage for the Demon Deacons throughout his college career. Being able to not only play off-man, but succeed at it, is one of the most difficult aspects of playing CB. For example, when the Lions drafted Slay in 2013, he was brought in as a physical press corner who excelled in bump-and-run coverage. When asked to play off-man as a rookie, Slay struggled badly. It was only last year when Slay really started to improve as an all-around corner, including getting a better feel for playing off-man coverage.
Johnson is arguably the only player in the draft who can get away with giving up 8 or 9 yards of cushion and still close the gap to break up a pass.
Despite playing 8 yards off the receiver, Johnson is able to read the quarterback and react quickly to break up the pass on second-and-8. His closing speed is truly astounding, to say the least.
Johnson quickly diagnoses the screen in the play above, then sprints downhill to meet the ball carrier for a 4-yard loss. He could ultimately use some work on wrapping up, but he's a willing tackler who makes plenty of plays in the open field. This was just one of several instances of him blowing up a screen in the backfield last year.
Heading into the NFL Combine, Johnson had a lot to prove. His listed weight throughout his senior year was 175 pounds, and many questioned whether he could add the weight to his frame. He was able to put those concerns to rest after adding another 13 pounds to his frame.
Johnson may have looked rail-thin on the field last year, but he plays a lot bigger than he looks.
Here's a nice example of Johnson getting physical in man coverage without fouling. He's able to turn his hips without losing any speed and matches the receiver stride for stride. Thankfully, he turns his head and locates the ball so that it's unlikely he gets called for defensive pass interference. DAYUMMMM.
Although it appears Johnson may have launched into the receiver, the play was reviewed and he was not called for targeting. You be the judge whether that's a clean hit in the NFL.
Regardless, I love to see these hits on tape. It lets you know that a player is fearless and not afraid to get his hands dirty. These are the types of players who love to be at the bottom of the pile or make a huge tackle in the open field and get in the opposing player's face after the play.
Johnson did pretty well against the run when asked to rush off the edge. Here's a nice stop made by him to force a fourth down.
Zone Coverage vs. Man Coverage
Some scouts believe Johnson is better suited in a zone scheme at the next level. Johnson will tell you he can play in any scheme, and I'd have to agree with him.
Johnson will excel in a zone scheme because he's great at reading quarterbacks and is quick to close gaps while making a play on the ball (as seen in the play above).
But he also does a phenomenal job of mirroring his opponents' movements and matching them stride for stride while in man coverage.
Incredible ability to read the receiver and turn his head at the last second to deflect the ball. Johnson stuck onto his assignment like glue.
Despite adding the necessary weight to play at the next level, it's yet to be determined whether Johnson can maintain his weight and play at the same level as we're prone to seeing him perform. It's truly amazing that he didn't miss a single game due to injury throughout his 41 career starts.
If Johnson is drafted by the Lions, he'll be asked to play plenty of press coverage, and that's something he was seldom asked to do in college. I'd question whether Johnson can get physical and jam at the line of scrimmage as a rookie.
Johnson is a willing tackler but needs to work on getting better at wrapping up. He's also awful at shedding blocks, and it's possible that he could get swallowed up by NFL receivers versus the run.
How He Fits
Kevin Johnson is a very smooth athlete with good size and exceptional movement skills. If the Lions choose to draft him (likely in the first round), he can learn from Rashean Mathis and be a perfect replacement for him down the road. He'd project well in Teryl Austin's aggressive scheme, and he fits what the Lions are looking for in a cornerback. Johnson has a ton of confidence in his ability and loves to back up his talk on the field.
He may not start Day 1, but a future secondary with Glover Quin, Darius Slay and Kevin Johnson is one that will be feared. Teryl Austin is the "DB Whisperer." It's about time the Lions give him a talented outside corner to develop.
2015 NFL Draft profiles: OT T.J. Clemmings (Pittsburgh), RB Duke Johnson (Miami [FL]), CB Eric Rowe (Utah), DT Michael Bennett (Ohio State), CB Quinten Rollins (Miami [OH]), DT Jordan Phillips (Oklahoma), OT Ereck Flowers (Miami [FL]), DT Malcom Brown (Texas), RB Jay Ajayi (Boise State), DE Owamagbe Odighizuwa (UCLA), DT Carl Davis (Iowa), OT D.J. Humphries (Florida)
Thanks for reading, and feel free to leave any suggestions of prospects you would like to be profiled in the comments below.