Secret Superstar: Leonard Johnson
On a Bucs team filled with young talent, Pete Damilatis looks at an undrafted rookie cornerback's roller-coaster season.
Secret Superstar: Leonard Johnson
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have made noise recently with spending sprees that have netted them elite veterans like Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks, Dashon Goldson, and Darrelle Revis. However, those thrifty moves shouldn’t overshadow a promising crop of young talent, particularly from last year’s draft. Doug Martin and Lavonte David both challenged for their respective Rookie of the Year Awards in 2012, and seventh overall pick Mark Barron has yet to reach his vast potential.
And yet, while mining Tampa Bay’s roster for hidden gems, our focus shifted to another promising rookie from last season. Undrafted Leonard Johnson wasn’t expected to be one of the Buccaneers’ top cornerbacks in 2012, but after a mercurial campaign for both himself and the Bucs’ secondary as a whole, the first-year defensive back showed the potential worthy of being Tampa Bay’s Secret Superstar.
Johnson was a four-year starter at Iowa State, and an active one at that. He tallied 200 tackles in his last three college seasons, and was known for being physical in both his coverage and run support. In the biggest test of his college career, he held Justin Blackmon to a relatively-low 99 yards and grabbed an interception as the Cyclones upset No. 2-ranked Oklahoma State. Johnson’s strong performance vs Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl must have drawn notice from the opposite sideline, because when a poor Scouting Combine left him undrafted, Greg Schiano didn’t hesitate to sign him. Once a star quarterback at Largo High School, Johnson was returning to his home state as a Buccaneer.
As much as Johnson impressed his coaches in the preseason, it wasn’t in the Bucs’ plans to have him play the second-most snaps of any Tampa Bay cornerback in his rookie season. With Aqib Talib returning healthy from a hamstring injury and Eric Wright joining the team with his new $38 million contract, Tampa Bay was supposed to boast a strong starting cornerback duo. But then the temperamental Talib was traded to the New England Patriots, and Wright was simultaneously hit with an Achilles injury and a performance-enhancing drug suspension. After playing just 32 defensive snaps in his first six games, Johnson was suddenly a regular starting cornerback for the Buccaneers.
Up and Down Season
Johnson’s first career start, a Week 8 Thursday night matchup against the Minnesota Vikings, was mixed with the bright lights and low lights that defined his rookie campaign. Right before halftime, he seemed beaten on a Percy Harvin deep route, but ripped the ball out of the receiver’s hands. If not for a foot out of bounds, it would have been an amazing interception. A Johnson missed tackle in the fourth quarter gave Harvin a measure of revenge, and Michael Jenkins then beat the rookie corner on consecutive slants that were so similar that they seemed to be an instant replay. But Johnson had the last laugh, intercepting a Christian Ponder floater on the Vikings’ final play from scrimmage.
Such highs and lows became a theme for Johnson over the remainder of the season. The following week versus the Oakland Raiders, Johnson faced 13 targets and allowed just four completions with a pass defensed and an interception. Against the San Diego Chargers, his missed tackle led to an 80-yard Danario Alexander touchdown. But he atoned for it with an 83-yard interception return for the game’s decisive touchdown. Then began a tough four-week stretch with four missed tackles and three touchdowns allowed in coverage, including the game-winning score by the Philadelphia Eagles with no time left.
That last play cost Johnson his starting job, but a poor performance by the Buccaneers’ secondary in a 41-0 blowout loss to the New Orleans Saints put the rookie back in a starting role the following week. Johnson finished his inaugural season strongly, as he allowed just 31 yards on 11 targets with two passes defensed in his final two games. In yet another epitome of his rookie season, Johnson forced a fumble, recovered a fumble, and lost a fumble, all in one play against the St. Louis Rams. Naturally, he batted away a deep pass two snaps later.
To put Johnson’s volatile season in perspective, we must look at the Buccaneers defense as a whole. The rookie finished 2012 with a 63.5% completion rate and 93.9 quarterback rating allowed on passes into his coverage. Although poor marks when compared to the rest of the league, those numbers actually hold up favorably in a Tampa Bay cornerback group that surrendered the most completions and yards of any in the NFL. Was Johnson’s season just the prettiest of a particularly ugly bunch? After seeing the solid coverage grades given to the majority of the Buccaneers corners, it doesn’t seem that simple.
To emphasize run support and physical play, Buccaneers coaches often demanded that their cornerbacks play in press coverage. Johnson himself lined up in press on 48.5% of his snaps, the fourth-highest rate of anyone with 300 coverage snaps, and way above the league average of 27.0%. Tampa Bay also used 144 defensive back blitzes last season, the fifth-most of any team.
This strategy helped reached Schiano’s goals, as Buccaneers cornerbacks combined for the sixth-most interceptions in the league and the fourth-most passes defensed, while Tampa Bay manned the league’s No. 1 run defense. But it also left the Tampa Bay cornerbacks on a bit of an island, and helps explain why Johnson surrendered nearly half of his yardage on short inside routes. When you see that Talib surrendered 168 yards to Hakeem Nicks in Week 2 and still earned a positive coverage grade from us, you can see the large responsibility given to Tampa Bay’s outside defensive backs.
Despite the name of this series, it would be a bit of a stretch to say that Johnson was a true superstar last season. Aside from the large responsibilities he had, he also made mistakes that will cost him in the future if he doesn’t correct them. With 10 missed tackles on defense and special teams, he may need to bulk up his 5-foot-10, 200 pound-frame to avoid slipping off ballcarriers. But as Rahim Moore showed us this season, poor tackling is certainly correctable for young players.
To fully reach his potential this season, Johnson will have to earn back his starting spot first. Newcomer Revis will likely be on one side, but the other starting spot is there for the taking. Wright was nearly released if not for a drastic pay cut, and Johnson’s experience last season gives him a slight edge on fellow youngsters Johnthan Banks and Anthony Gaitor. A year after going undrafted, Johnson’s has shown success as a starter and could have a clear path back to that position. On a roster already brimming with young talent, don’t be surprised if he soon earns the notoriety of his 2012 classmates.
Follow Pete on Twitter: @PFF_Pete