ORCHARD PARK – It was almost exactly one year ago to the day when the career of Buffalo Bills nickel cornerback Taron Johnson reached its first critical juncture.
The fourth-round draft pick in 2018 had given the Bills two promising seasons, but his inability to stay healthy – he missed nine full games plus parts of several others – cast a shadow of doubt on his viability moving forward.
And then when he got off to such a poor start in 2020, the Bills began to think they were going to have to move in a different direction at a position that, in today’s NFL, is essentially a starting job.
According to Pro Football Focus, in the first five games last year Johnson allowed 27 pass completions on 34 attempts into his coverage responsibility, a 79.4 completion percentage, and those plays totaled 306 yards.
So coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier made the decision before the Bills hosted the Chiefs on Oct. 19 to bench Johnson and go with Cam Lewis at the nickel spot.
“Oh yeah, I do; I mean it was tough,” Johnson said Thursday when I asked him if he ever thinks back to that night when he began the game on the sideline. “Tough for anybody to go through that but you know, just stay true to myself and trust in God and everything worked out.”
As fate would have it, Lewis played only 10 snaps before getting hurt, forcing Johnson back onto the field from where he hardly came off the rest of the season.
Johnson made a stunning turnaround starting that night in the loss to the Chiefs and he would go on to make two of the biggest plays of the year – his 51-yard pick-six that helped the Bills beat the Steelers in the regular season, and then his 101-yard pick-six in the divisional round playoff victory over the Ravens that will go down as one of the greatest plays in franchise history.
Taron Johnson signs a new contract: ‘I love this place’
In the first five games this season, Johnson has continued to play well in Buffalo’s top-ranked defense, so well that the team rewarded him last week with a three-year contract extension that includes $14 million guaranteed and could be worth $24 million by its end after 2024.
“We have been talking for a couple weeks, my agent and (GM Brandon) Beane, and we just finally came around to the numbers that I saw fit, and I wanted to be here, I love this place, so that was really it,” said Johnson, who could have become an unrestricted free agent after 2021. “I saw the numbers and I said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s go for it.’ I want to be here … it’s a load off my back.”
Re-upping with defensive backs has become a staple for Beane as he now has Johnson, Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer locked up for multiple seasons. This is not lost on Frazier, who could not be happier about that situation.
“We’ve been very fortunate to keep the nucleus of our guys together and what it says to any players from other teams is that the culture in Buffalo that Sean has set up is really, really good,” said Frazier. “The fact that guys want to stay here, they want to re-sign in Buffalo, we’re doing something right to create that type of environment where guys want to stay, they want to finish their careers in Buffalo.”
Frazier remembered the decision to bench Johnson last year, and he said the turnaround the 25-year-old from Weber State has made has been eye-opening.
“In those early days, not only was he wondering, we were wondering also, is he going to figure it out? Is he going to come along the way we thought he would when we drafted him?” Frazier said. “To Taron’s credit, he’s worked extremely hard to get a good grasp of the defense to the point where now he’s like a coach on the field.
“One of the biggest concerns with Taron was the injury bug early on. He continued to get injured and you couldn’t get him on the field, but lately he’s been able to stay on the field and he’s developed into a really, really good player, one of the best slot corners in the National Football League.”
Last week, Johnson – who missed the game against Houston with a groin problem – played a key role in helping to limit the big-play Chiefs to a mundane night on offense. Although he was targeted a season-high 11 times and allowed a season-high six completions for 53 yards, the average gain was just 8.8 yards and the Chiefs had only 15 yards after the catch as the sure-tackling Johnson finished with 10 stops.
“He had an outstanding game for us,” said Frazier. “There were times we matched him up on (Tyreek) Hill and he did a really good job of covering him man to man. He was good in zone coverage and he tackled well also. We ask a lot of Taron both in the run game as well as being in pass defense and he’s been able to rise to the challenge every week.”
Whenever they are asked about Johnson, both Hyde and Poyer just smile at each other because he’s clearly one of their favorite teammates, mainly for the way he plays with such a dogged determination for a guy who stands just 5-11 and weighs 192 pounds.
“He comes to play every week,” said Poyer, who earlier in the season called Johnson the best nickel corner in the league. “He’s really turned into a professional football player, just like learning from his rookie year to now, he’s a lot smarter. He’s grown up a lot more. He just comes out there and he makes plays for us every single week and we’re lucky to have him on our team.”
For the season, Johnson has allowed only 13 completions on 28 targets, a percentage of 48.1 for an NFL passer rating of 64.1 which is outstanding. Per Pro Football Focus, that passer rating ranks him third in the league among slot corners, and his average of one reception allowed per 11.8 snaps ranks fifth.
Yes, he’s come a long way in the last calendar year, and when he looks back on that night last season against Kansas City, he said, “Yeah, I’d say it was a turning point for me. You either sink or swim in this league. I mean we all have adversity in this league so just how you respond to it, and I tried to – and I feel like I did – respond the right way.”
Sal Maiorana can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.