Since Kris Richard has taken over the back-end of the Dallas Cowboys defense, they have clearly shown a bias towards a “type” of cornerback. Richard, looking to build this Dallas unit in a similar form to his Seattle teams, has prioritized long corners both in height and arm length.
As his responsibilities within the organization increase, it’s only fair to expect Kris Richard to have more say in who the Cowboys’ defense acquires in terms of talent. This means we should anticipate more defensive backs who fit his type, such as Kentucky Wildcats cornerback Lonnie Johnson Jr.
So why does Lonnie Johnson fit the mold of what Kris Richard tends to look for? Well, for starters, he is 6’3″ and 206 lbs with 32 1/4″ arms. He’s a long corner with excellent size and the trait profile which indicates he could be the perfect candidate to play cornerback in Dallas.
But while he might look great on paper, the tape is always the most important factor for evaluating and projecting talent. And, for Johnson, the tape isn’t all-that great. Despite his length, Johnson struggled mightily in press-man coverage at Kentucky. Too often he is late or ineffective with his hands, leaving him susceptible to being blown by by the opposing receiver. He often loses balance due to poor footwork, and is rather average with his hips and quick change of direction.
Where Johnson was his best in college was in zone coverage, playing his deep third of Kentucky’s cover-three look. Rarely did he allow receivers behind him in zone coverage, and displayed good instincts when deciding whether to jump routes or play more conservatively when playing in that deep third. He was not nearly as comfortable underneath, and Kentucky didn’t ask him to play in that role too often. Because of how big he is, Johnson is able to contest at the catch point regularly, yet he only deflected 9 passes in 2 years.
What gives me the most hope for Lonnie Johnson as a prospect (besides his length) is his Senior Bowl performance. Johnson impressed daily at the Senior Bowl, looking more comfortable in man coverage and playing much better in his press technique.
Was this Johnson becoming more comfortable over time and a sign of things to come at the next level, or was it an anomaly that we shouldn’t read too much into? The answer to that question is up to the individual teams, but his combine performance will play a huge role in how those teams answer.
As I’ve discussed already, Lonnie Johnson Jr. fits what Kris Richard tends to look for in his cornerbacks. He is long, tall, and relatively athletic, making him a clay piece for a coach like Richard to develop.
The question is, however, how much development can really occur? The highs for Johnson are rather high when he maximizes his natural abilities on the field. But too often he is sloppy in technique, or looks lost in man coverage. Whether or not Richard can “fix” Johnson completely may never be seen, but teams (especially this one) could fall in love with him as a prospect for what he can become if it all comes together.