Bears Draft Watch: Kentucky’s Johnson Could Bring Size To Defensive Backfield

Our Chicago Bears reporter breaks down the team’s prospective prospects for the NFL draft, which takes place from April 25-27. Read the previous scouting reports here.

By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)

When the Chicago Bears hired new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, the question surrounding the hire is how seamless the transition will be from former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.

A new coordinator can mean a new system to new players with traits that fit better with the new scheme. Pagano comes from a defensive backs background and that area of the team seems to be where he is adjusting the most. Pagano primarily kept the defensive coaching staff whole except for some secondary coaches and the linebackers coach.

It stands to reason to think that Pagano wants to keep the best defense from a year ago whole, but he is also looking at making his mark on the defense.

The starting safety and cornerback combos are already set to be different this year with new safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and slot corner Buster Skrine. Now Pagano may be eyeing some changes in the depth he has with his defensive backs, enter Lonnie Johnson Jr.

Johnson, a native of nearby Gary, Ind., has been in multiple mock drafts near the 87th pick area where the Bears will be selecting. He is a big corner from the University of Kentucky and was a relative unknown until some great practices and a terrific showing at the NFL Combine.

What Johnson could bring to the Bears is interesting since the Bears do not have a glaring need at corner. But as we know in the NFL, its never a bad idea to try and upgrade a position group especially one as important as cornerback.

In the pass happy NFL, it is so important to have corners that can give the pass rush those precious seconds to get after the quarterback. Corners obviously benefit from the pass rush but with pass defense its about having a good combination of rush and coverage. If the Bears do end up selecting Johnson, its important to remember where he fits on the roster as a outside corner because very few corners can play on the outside and the slot corner, generally corners are specialized to outside or inside.

Let’s take a look at a big senior corner from Kentucky who might be right up the Bears’ alley.

Combine results:

  • 40 yard dash – 4.52 (Tied fourteenth out of all cornerbacks)
  • Bench press – 15 (Tied fifth out of all cornerbacks)
  • Vert Jump – 38” (Eighth out of all cornerbacks)
  • Broad Jump – 10’9” (Tied sixth out of all cornerbacks)
  • 3 cone drill – 7.01 (Twelfth out of all cornerbacks)
  • 20 yard shuttle – 4.1 (Tied fifth out of all cornerbacks)
  • 60 yard shuttle – DNP

Strengths:

  • Great size with long arms
  • Fluid feet in backpedal and mirroring
  • Uses his length well when throws are in front of him
  • Moves laterally easily and fluidly
  • Is a threat off the edge on kick blocks

Weaknesses:

  • Can struggle staying over the top of speedsters
  • Only had one interception in two seasons at Kentucky
  • Has to improve and be more consistent in run support
  • Questions about his competitiveness

Fit with the Bears:

Johnson is an interesting prospect for the Bears if they were to select him, projecting as an outside corner who doesn’t have the speed to play inside.

Last year the Bears had back up corner Kevin Toliver II to starting corners Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara. Toliver played fine in spot starts with injuries to the starters but the Bears didn’t invest much in the undrafted free agent. Perhaps the Bears may want to upgrade the depth they have behind Fuller and Amukamara, Johnson projects to be taken anywhere from the third and fourth round.

Overall, the cornerback position is set with the starters and any corner the Bears bring in will be for depth purposes, but that depth projects to be important since both Amukamara and Fuller have dealt with multiple injury issues. A knock against Johnson though was his lack of playmaking in his time in college, his terrific combine and physical stature makes him an intriguing prospect regardless.

Some will argue that creating turnovers or playmaking is not something you can develop at the pro level, but everyone has to remember that sometimes programs and systems help create playmakers. Johnson bounced around in college and only played two seasons of FBS football at a smaller SEC school. Being on the Bears with Pagano might allow for Johnson to be far better than anyone imagined.

Then again, corners can’t be playmakers when quarterbacks don’t throw to their side of the field. That is the gamble of the draft, players blossom under systems that fit them and no one can control where they go. Its harder in the NFL to find corners that can play on the outside than it is to find corners on the inside.

If Johnson is the selection for the Bears, then the team acquired a player that will matter in their defensive backfield even if it isn’t for this upcoming season.

Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR

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