The Los Angeles Rams have a big decision on their hands this offseason and they will have to make it soon. That decision is whether or not to bring back safety John Johnson IIII. By the looks of it, they’ll at least allow Johnson III to hit the market.
JJ3 seems ready to test the market pic.twitter.com/ckZFoECPyQ
— Cameron DaSilva (@camdasilva) March 5, 2021
Johnson III is the big free agent for the Rams this season outside of edge rusher Leonard Floyd. Unfortunately, despite not making any pro bowls, he is one of the best young safeties in the NFL. After losing Corey Littleton last season, Johnson III led the No. 1 defense in tackles.
As important as Johnson III is to the Rams defense, they’ve developed safeties in the past and it’s a position in which they do have depth. Jordan Fuller is a solid player, Terrell Burgess showed flashes, Rapp will look to move into a bigger role, and Nick Scott played well at the end of last season as well.
The perception of Johnson III
There’s no doubt that when it comes to players on their own teams, NFL fans tend to perceive players on their team better than they actually are. Before I get any further, this is not to say that Johnson III isn’t a good player or that he isn’t an important piece of the Los Angeles Rams defense. Because he clearly is.
The point that I’m going to make here is that maybe Rams fans value him much higher than those around the league. Johnson has been in the NFL for four years. While he did miss half of one year due to injury, Johnson has never made a pro bowl, never been selected to an all-pro team, and never made an NFL’s top-100 list.
Now, we shouldn’t use pro bowls, all-pro lists, and a list voted on by only players to be the sole determination of how good a player is. However, if Johnson truly were an elite safety, wouldn’t he have made one of those lists just once?
NFL writer Gregg Rosenthal just put together his top-101 free agents of 2021. Johnson III came in at number 35 and behind safeties Marcus Maye and Justin Simmons, meaning outside of the Rams fan base, he’s not even considered the best free agent safety on the market.
Pro Football Network put together their top-100 free agent list and again, Johnson was the No. 2 safety and ranked at 23. Maye was listed at 26.
It’s not about how good Johnson is. It’s about perception.
Outside of the Rams fan base, Johnson is not a top-5 safety in the NFL. Top-10? Maybe. That still makes him a very good safety, but certainly not elite. The Rams will see what Johnson’s value is and if it is something that they can match, they will. If not, they certainly aren’t going to overpay. In the end, that’s the smart decision.
Can the Los Angeles Rams move on from Johnson III?
The big question is whether or not the Los Angeles Rams can move on from John Johnson III. As mentioned earlier, Jordan Fuller is a solid player, Terrell Burgess showed flashes, Rapp will look to move into a bigger role, and Nick Scott played well at the end of last season as well.
It also can’t be forgotten that it’s not as if Johnson III is this unreplaceable player. Johnson III started just five games in 2019 and played in six. Johnson III injured his shoulder and was placed on injured reserve. With Eric Weddle and Taylor Rapp at safety, the Rams ended with the NFL’s eighth best pass defense according to DVOA. Using regular metrics, the Rams pass defense ranked 12th.
Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald are more important to the Rams pass defense than John Johnson III. There’s no doubt that Johnson brings a veteran leadership and football IQ to the position. There’s a reason he called the plays last season in Brandon Staley’s defense.
However, those are traits that can be developed. Johnson III didn’t call plays on the field as a rookie. Jordan Fuller was a two-time captain on defense at Ohio State. Terrell Burgess was apart of the leadership group at Utah. That doesn’t even mention players the Rams could bring in.
Los Angeles Rams Replacement Options for John Johnson III
If the Los Angeles Rams are unable to bring back John Johnson III, they will certainly look to replace him. The Rams have depth at safety and very likely could go into the season with what they have. As it stands, the Rams have two players that they’ve drafted on day two of the draft in their safety room.
Teams draft those players with the thought that in a year or two, they can start. Rapp and Burgess are those players. That doesn’t even mention Jordan Fuller who got valuable starting time last season.
However, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them draft a safety late to add depth, add a potential starter early, or sign a veteran in free agency.
One player that makes some sense is Damontae Kazee. While Raheem Morris isn’t going to completely change the Rams’ defensive scheme, Kazee does have experience in Morris’ system. He also is coming off a torn Achilles, meaning he could be a cheaper option and come in on a short term deal. Kazee would bring experience and veteran leadership to the safety group.
In the draft, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Rams add depth late. That’s probably the most realistic option given that the Rams have already spend a second and third round pick on safeties in the last two drafts.
However, if they look at the draft, Oregon safety Jevon Holland could be an option at 52. Jalen Ramsey has worked out with Holland this offseason and would be a perfect fit in the Rams secondary.
The safety position is much like linebacker, running back, and to an extent, quarterback. Unless you have an elite player at the position, it’s best not to make a huge commitment to that player. The Los Angeles Rams have signed players like Alec Ogletree, Todd Gurley, and Jared Goff to large contracts in the past. Those contracts ended up being mistakes.
That’s not to say that Johnson would be, but he’s not Budda Baker, Eddie Jackson, Darnell Savage, Harrison Smith, Derwin James, or Jamal Adams. If the Rams can figure out a way to fit Johnson on the franchise tag under the cap, a short term option makes sense. However, a five-year deal for a player at a position that connects Johnson III to the Rams is a risk. And for a team already in cap struggles because of bad contract extension, it may be something to avoid.