John Johnson must shoulder leadership role as Rams’ most experienced safety
Uncertainty about when, or if, NFL teams will go back to work in a group settings has not stopped John Johnson from preparing for a 2020 comeback season.
The Rams safety is coming off shoulder surgery that ended his 2019 season after six games. Before team facilities were closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson powered through rehabilitation sessions, incorporating virtual reality boxing and rock climbing games to help strengthen his shoulders.
Lately, he’s been swimming in his backyard pool.
During a video conference with reporters Wednesday, Johnson said he felt great.
“We can still lock in, we can still do everything that we’ve been doing — we just have to do it on a more personal level and safe level,” he said. “So that’s what it is to me: Mission Impossible. Just another wrinkle that they threw at us, and we’ve just got to find a way to overcome it.”
Johnson, 24, enters his fourth NFL season with a new role as a position group leader.
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Veteran Eric Weddle retired from the Rams after playing the final season of his 13-year career in 2019. That leaves Johnson, a third-round draft pick in 2017, as the longest-tenured safety on the roster.
“I have to assume more of a leadership role, getting that secondary going,” Johnson said. “Have fun with it. Just don’t be too tight with it.”
Johnson and second-year pro Taylor Rapp will be the starting safeties for a defense that is being remade under new coordinator Brandon Staley.
“We both can do a lot of different things that a lot of guys in the league can’t.”
— Rams’ John Johnson, on he and fellow starting safety Taylor Rapp
Linebacker Cory Littleton, edge rusher Dante Fowler, slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman and safety Marqui Christian agreed to terms with other teams.
“It’s a business — that’s how things work,” Johnson said. “Guys want to go somewhere where they’re wanted, and they can play and they can support their families.
“So, I mean, it’s understandable. But I know we have a plan to replace those guys and some people will have to step up and it’s going to be fun to watch.”
Before the NFL ordered team facilities closed last month, Johnson said he had multiple in-office visits and conversations with Staley, who coached previously with the Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos. The Rams were scheduled to begin offseason workouts April 21, but that has been postponed indefinitely. Johnson said the Rams still would have access to technology for playbooks and meetings that would make learning the defense easier.
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Johnson is looking forward to playing alongside Rapp, who replaced him in the lineup after he was injured last season. Under Staley, he said, both will display more versatility.
“We both can do a lot of different things that a lot of guys in the league can’t,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll be put in a lot of good situations to make lot of plays.”
When NFL players get back onto the field and eventually play games is still to be determined. Johnson said he was hopeful training camp would open as scheduled in late July. He finds the concept, floated by some, of possibly playing in stadiums without fans disheartening.
“That’s a part of the game as much as going out there and scheming up a team and playing,” he said. “You know, the fans have a huge part in it.
“So it will be a little strange. I don’t know if they’re going to play fan crowd noise on the PA system, but it would just be a little strange because fans are such a big part of the game. ... It’s just all a mess.
“I kind of want to say we shouldn’t play without fans but I just do what I’m told. ... So if we got to go out there and play without fans, so be it.”
Johnson is entering the final year of his rookie contract. He is scheduled to earn $2.3 million, according to overthecap.com.
Rams general manager Les Snead said this week the Rams were focused on the April 23-25 NFL draft, and would consider extensions for players such as Johnson and receiver Cooper Kupp after its completion.
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“I call it the end of free agency into the draft, into the future,” Snead said.
Johnson indicated he was not consumed by getting his next contract.
“I just let my play speak for itself,” he said. “My goal right now is to not let this injury carry over into my contract year.
“I’m just looking at it as redemption, a bounce back. Just go out there and put my best year on tape. … and I think that will take care of itself.”
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