A&M Safety Antonio Johnson Defined By Optionality
When the deadline for NFL teams to administer the franchise tag expired Tuesday without the Eagles making a move, it guaranteed that the team wouldn’t have a player performing under the tag for a 15th straight season.
The dreaded franchise tag distinction – which secures control for another year if specific conditions are met – ensures the player a one-year contract at the average of the five highest salaries at their position.
Therefore, the probability of blue-chip defenders like C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Javon Hargrave, and James Bradberry playing elsewhere next season grew increasingly higher.
Gardner-Johnson is an interesting case.
While his price tag to guarantee his services for one more season would’ve been exorbitant, the 25-year-old defensive back is coming off a career season in which he corralled six interceptions and showcased positional versatility.
Under newly appointed defensive coordinator Sean Desai, Gardner-Johnson could represent the key to unlocking the defense’s full potential.
Furthermore, his presence is invaluable on a defense devoid of youthful building blocks.
The positional outlook is further complicated by Gardner-Johnson’s workmanlike counterpart, Marcus Epps, also expecting to have multiple suitors on the open market.
The safety position could go through a similar transformation as defensive tackle, where both Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox potentially played their final snaps in Midnight Green.
With the possibility of another safety retooling looming, the Eagles met with a multitude of prospects at the NFL Scouting Combine last week in Indianapolis, including former Texas A&M safety Antonio Johnson.
A two-year starter for the Aggies, Johnson left College Station with 164 tackles (14 for loss), seven passes defended, an interception, two sacks, and four forced fumbles.
As a junior, Johnson logged 71 tackles (5 for loss), a sack, and three forced fumbles en route to earning various postseason accolades, including Associated Press first-team All-SEC and Coaches’ second-team All-SEC.
At 6-foot-2, 198 pounds, Johnson sports a lengthy frame that can be particularly advantageous in terms of closing throwing windows or rejecting passes at the line of scrimmage when playing in the box. It also aids his run defense.
Adding to his next-level appeal, Johnson often acted as a Swiss Army knife for A&M’s defense, aligning at free safety, inside the box, and even in the slot, where he defended a some of the SEC’s most dynamic athletes.
Modeling his game after his two most influential safeties, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James, Johnson embraced his myriad roles.
“I feel like it prepared me very well because I don’t have a set title to my name,” Johnson said. “It opens a lot of doors for me, places teams can put me at. I feel that’s one of my strengths. Teams look for players they can keep on the field in different packages without having to sub.”
While at Texas A&M, Johnson was primarily exposed to Cover 3 and Cover 4 matches – the Aggies’ base defenses – along with some Cover 1 man.
Due to team needs, Johnson played more nickel than free safety, though he acquitted himself well at the latter in his opportunities.
Considering his multifaceted skill set and long-term projection, Johnson is likely to be selected late in the first round or early second. Concerns would arise only due to his lack of ball production.
His lone collegiate interception occurred midway through his sophomore campaign, in a decisive 35-14 win at Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium against Missouri. It’s a play Johnson hopes NFL personnel people watch closely.
“I only had one career interception, so I feel like a lot of teams question my ball skills,” he said. “I feel that’d be the play I’d show them to show I do have ball skills. I was in man coverage. It shows my man coverage as safety.”
As he prepares to move onto the next phase of his football career, Johnson will continue to draw motivation from his No. 1 influence, his mom, whom he credits for making monumental sacrifices along the way.
While the whirlwind of the coming weeks looms, a steadfast Johnson remains focused on where he can improve.
“Really just pad level,” Johnson said. “I feel like when I watch myself sometimes I can get high, being a bigger, longer DB, really just focusing on my man coverage. I feel at the next level, that’s a spot where you’ve got to be good because there’s a lot of good receivers. Really just working on my man coverage.”
– Andrew DiCecco (@AndrewDiCecco) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.
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