Bears quarterback Nick Foles took aim at tight end Cole Kmet up the left side of the field during a training camp practice Aug. 25 at Halas Hall. Rookie cornerback Jaylon Johnson jumped in front of Kmet to intercept Foles' pass and dashed the other direction.
Afterward, Foles sought out Johnson. He asked Johnson: “How did you know that play was coming?”
Johnson didn’t. His first training camp interception was all instincts.
“Nick was surprised because he thought maybe [Johnson's] defensive coaches were scouting the play, telling him to fall off and make that pick,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy said. “It was all instincts.”
Those instincts have guided Johnson every step of the way through his football journey – from Central High School in Fresno, California, to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, to Soldier Field in Chicago.
A second-round draft pick (50th) overall by the Bears, he has an opportunity to make an immediate impact as a rookie. While Johnson has been fairly limited in team drills during training camp, Nagy has no qualms about him being ready for Week 1 on Sept. 13.
“I really feel like he’s ready,” Nagy said.
NO ORDINARY FRESHMAN
Coming out of high school, Johnson ranked as the No. 81 overall recruit in the country, according to 247Sports.com. He was not the type of recruit Utah lands very often.
From the minute Johnson stepped onto campus, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham saw something different in Johnson.
“From day one, he was the first guy on the field and the last guy to leave,” Whittingham told Shaw Media. “His work ethic and his attention to detail was incredible. … There wasn’t a lot to teach him. He was ready to go right when we got him.”
Johnson played in 11 games for the Utes as a true freshman in 2017. He finished his three-year career at Utah appearing in 38 games, including 29 starts, with seven interceptions. He was a 2019 All-American and a two-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer.
Whittingham said if Johnson hadn’t left school early, he would likely have been voted a team captain in 2020. He called Johnson mature beyond his years. He also called him “the ultimate preparer.”
Johnson will watch hours upon hours of film, studying his upcoming opponents.
“He’s the whole package,” Whittingham said. “He’s got the size, everything you talk about, what you need to play corner in the NFL, and that is who he is. Like I said, when he came to Utah, he just didn’t come in here like some regular, ordinary freshman. He was focused and he had a plan of attack and he executed it.”
Johnson went into college with a three-year plan, according to Whittingham. He accomplished every single one of his goals in those three years, including being selected in the NFL draft.
No doubt, Johnson has a list of goals for his NFL career. He said he’s been taking steps toward earning a starting spot in the NFL “my whole life.”
“Now that I’m here, I feel like I’m ready,” the 21-year-old said. “I mean, I still have my rookie mistakes to get out the way, but I mean, physically, I feel like I’m ready.”
With former Bears veteran corner Prince Amukamara departing in free agency, Johnson is the heir apparent to the cornerback spot on the vaunted Bears defense. Whether or not he will take that baton in Week 1 remains in question.
It has been an unusual offseason, and Johnson is trying to earn the spot without the benefit of preseason games.
The Bears drafted inside linebacker Roquan Smith eighth overall in 2018 and plugged him into the starting lineup, even though Smith missed part of training camp while holding out during a contract dispute. The transition appeared seamless for Smith anyway.
When Smith looks at Johnson, he sees a guy who makes plays, and plays smart. He foresees a smooth transition for Johnson.
“The biggest adjustment is like time management,” Smith said. “I’m sure he understands that. He's an adult, so he knows what he needs to do on and off the field to put himself in the best possible situation. And he has a lot of veterans to lean on such as Kyle Fuller, Eddie [Jackson] and those guys.”
LEARNING THE ROPES
Johnson had surgery on his shoulder in the spring. Turns out, he played through much of his junior season with a torn right labrum (and still became an All-American).
While he’s back to full health now, and he has been suiting up for practice, the Bears have been cautious with him in team drills. He didn't play much in the Bears’ tune-up at Soldier Field on Aug. 29.
“I feel good now,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t tell you when I started feeling normal. It was just about attacking my physical therapy day by day and just trying to get better every day.”
Bears secondary coach Deshea Townsend said the Bears brought Johnson here to play, not sit. Johnson has been locked into a position battle with Buster Skrine, a 10th-year NFL veteran who played in 16 games (four starts) for the Bears in 2019.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Skrine and Johnson splitting duties, especially early in the year as Johnson gets his feet wet.
“He does [extra work] before practice, after practice,” Skrine said. “I mean, he's attentive in meetings. And every time he's out there, he's making plays on the ball. So he's doing a good job with the reps that he's getting.”
Nagy has been razzing the rookie all the time at Halas Hall, and Johnson is unfazed.
“He's got extreme confidence,” Nagy said. “And it's not cocky. It's confidence. I like that about him. He's got a ways to go. He hasn't played an NFL game. We'll see. But in practice so far, I like where he's at.”
Whittingham called it a “quiet confidence.” Johnson was well-liked by his teammates at Utah. He seems to be a similar reputation at Halas Hall, too.
Utah’s defense was one of the best in college football in 2019 (six defenders were drafted this year). Johnson has been a leader on an elite defense before. Now, he’s hoping to do it at the highest level.
“He’s gonna be in that league a long time, in my estimation,” Whittingham said.