Former New York Jets General Manager Mike Maccagnan never hit home runs on free-agent signings. Time and time again, aging veterans (ex: cornerback Antonio Cromartie, running back Matt Forte, etc.) were signed for more than their worth and burned out quickly. The lack of depth developed through the draft hurt, and so did the inability to win in free agency. But who could have seen the disaster that would come of cornerback Trumaine Johnson?
The Tale of Trumaine Johnson
A Montana Product
From the beginning, Trumaine Johnson was an athletic stud. Playing multiple positions, he was recruited out of Edison High School as a wide receiver in 2008. As a California native, he drew interest from the west coast bluebloods of USC, California, and Oregon. Ultimately, the 6-2 and 204lbs. Johnson would wind up at Montana, where he quickly switched and excelled at corner. Through four years and 45 starts, he set school records with 36 pass deflections and 15 interceptions. With two-time All-American and three-time All-Big Sky Conference first-team player, he began to draw interest from NFL teams with his impressive play, size, and athletic ability.
Like any FCS prospect, Johnson faced concerns of his stats being a product of dominating against weaker opponents. However, it would not faze him. At the 2012 NFL Combine with his 4.50 40-yard dash and 19 bench reps, Johnson proved he has the speed, size, and strength to compete in the NFL. His strengths in coverage and run support made up for instinctual issues as he left Indianapolis being viewed, according to NFL.com as, “an NFL-ready corner who is projected to be picked in the second round.”
Come April, Johnson was selected 65th overall in the third round of the draft by the St. Louis Rams. ESPN praised the selection, stating how, “This is one of the worst units in the NFL a year ago, this is the third guy they’ve added to the back end of this defense. They need to create big plays and turnovers, and Johnson is a hybrid guy that can play inside or outside with some range and that gives them some versatility.”
The Rise of the Non-Pro Bowl Corner
Once again, the fact he came from the FCS limited his role, as he was eased into a full-time player. His rookie season, he made his presence felt right away despite playing only 33% of snaps. He ended with just two interceptions and eight pass deflections, earning more playtime over the next two seasons. His ball-hawking skills flashed, with six interceptions in a 24 game span. He earned a full-time starting role by his contract year, but little did the Rams know what was to come in 2015.
The Franchise Tag
In 2015, Trumaine Johnson was finally viewed as a starter in a contract year. Starting 13 out of 14 games (two missed due to concussion), he posted a 79.8 grade according to Pro Football Focus. In playing 78% of snaps for then-Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, he had a career year. He was second in the league with seven interceptions and posted another career-high with 17 pass deflections. Establishing himself as a premier lockdown corner at only 25 years old, he was set for a huge raise if he hit the open market.
Except Johnson did not. The Rams elected to use the franchise tag Johnson for the 2016 season. Yet Johnson could not replicate his production in 2015. That season would be Williams’ final as the Rams defensive coordinator after the Rams plummeted to one of the worst defenses in the league. Johnson put up modest numbers in coverage with 11 pass deflections, but in 14 games only had one interception to show for it. With Williams now gone, the Rams still could not afford to let their top defensive back leave… so once again the Rams franchise tagged Johnson.
Playing a full season for the first time since his second season, Johnson finished with two interceptions to 14 pass deflections. Overall, his performance was good but not as dominant as he was in the years prior. With an underwhelming 2017 season, Johnson was finally set to hit the free-agent market.
In an average cornerback market following a handful of moves prior to 2018 Free Agency starting, Johnson headlined the cornerback market with former Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler. With consistent play and few significant red flags in regards to health, it is easy to understand why he was the best corner available. Teams such as the Cleveland Browns, Tennessee Titans, and the Las Vegas Raiders all had means necessary to sign Johnson to the massive deal he deserved. Meanwhile, the Rams completely remodeled their secondary by acquiring stars Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib to replace Johnson. The market moved quickly, as Johnson signed a massive five-year deal worth $72-million with the Jets.
At the time, Jets fans were very paranoid over giving Johnson such a big contract. It was only one season after the release of the aging Darrelle Revis. He had just signed a five-year deal worth $70 (also signed under Maccagnan) in 2015 but was released following 2016 after his performance took a steep fall from his Pro Bowl form. Revis’ departure left a huge hole in the Jets defense, which was in desperate need of a lockdown corner. And by bringing in the 28-year old Johnson, even at such a steep price, appeared to be the right call… as long as it would not end up being Revis 2.0.
The 2018 Campaign
Under Head Coach Todd Bowles and defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers, the Jets ran their 3-4 defensive front. They needed Johnson to be the lockdown corner he was for the Rams so that more rushers could be sent given the lack of pass-rushing ability on the team. Whether it was inconsistent play, injuries, or no pass rush, the Jets pass defense still struggled. Johnson played admirably in 10 games, missing time with lingering quad and hamstring issues. He finished with four interceptions – his highest total since 2015. So after a solid 2018, what exactly led Johnson to be benched and irrelevant by the conclusion of 2019?
Entering the 2019 season, the Jets were expecting a much-improved pass defense. Darryl Roberts being opposite Johnson and a healthy Marcus Maye should have benefited Johnson. But it didn’t. Roberts played poorly and now joins Johnson on the verge of release, and no matter what Maye and All-Pro safety Jamal Adams would do, it could not make up for Johnson’s play. He finished the season on injured reserve by November due to ankle injuries. He had started in five games out of seven, losing more and more playtime thanks to poor play. According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson played his way to a 53.0 grade in 2019 – the worst of his career. With leg injuries taking a toll on his body and coming off as disgruntled due to his poor play, it was destined for 2019 to be his last with the Jets.
When Mike Maccagnan signed Trumaine Johnson back in 2018, nobody could have foreseen such a drastic downfall. His play pushed him down the depth chart too in favor of guys such as Nate Hairston and Arthur Maulet. In his deal, there was an out for the Jets in 2021 leaving just eight million in dead cap, however, new general manager Joe Douglas has made it clear there is no waiting. Johnson is expected to be released by the Jets any day now. In doing so, the Jets would incur $12-million in dead cap and only save three-million.
Last Word on the Tale of Trumaine Johnson
The to-be former Jet corner will be 30 for the 2020 season and in search of a new team. He is likely to find work, as he makes a strong bounce-back candidate. As for Gang Green, the Jets will be looking to find yet another young, lockdown corner on the outside. Whether going for youth with James Bradberry, Byron Jones, or yet another veteran such as Logan Ryan or Chris Harris – the Jets could afford to pay big bucks again at corner. The only question remains will Joe Douglas get it right, or join his predecessor in failing to do so?
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