IRVING, Texas — Matt Johnson is a very happy man these days. And considering what the young safety has been through over the course of the past year, it’s hard to blame him for savoring the little things like being able to practice and being around his teammates for the first time in over a year.
Johnson is of course the fourth-round pick in the 2012 draft who came to the Dallas Cowboys with very high expectations. Unfortunately, a series of hamstring issues kept him off the field for the bulk of last year and eventually landed him on injured reserve.
Some questioned why the Cowboys had so much faith in him and even kept him around, but the native of Washington State is definitely glad they did.
“I feel very fortunate to be in this organization. A lot of people who went through what I did last year would have ended up on the street or ended up somewhere else. So I feel very fortunate and I love this organization for that and I just want to prove what I can do,” Johnson said on Tuesday during the second week of Organized Team Activities (OTAs).
With the retirement of Gerald Sensabaugh earlier in the offseason, that means the current starting safeties for Dallas appear to be veteran Will Allen, who was added earlier this year and Barry Church, who like Johnson is returning from injury.
However, neither of those starting spots appears to be set in stone, which could open the door for someone like Johnson, who had the reputation as a true playmaker in the secondary, a guy with nice speed and athleticism and someone who was regarded as a true ball hawk during his time at Eastern Washington.
“I want to prove myself every day. This offseason, I didn’t really go home. I stayed here and I hope some guys noticed that. I just want to prove to them that I’m going to be here,” he said. “I’m going to stick around and hopefully I’m going to help the team win. It’s all going to come down to who makes plays and does the right things. I think I’m going in the right direction. I think I’m in the mix but there’s a lot of things that I can do better.”
But before Johnson can start to vie for a starting spot, a process which figures to really heat up during training camp, he had to get back on the practice field for the first time in almost a year and start working with his teammates once again.
Of course, when you’ve been off the field for as long as he has been, every step is a baby step. But talking to him in the locker room after Tuesday’s OTA session, he was clearly quite pleased about how well things have gone thus far.
“That’s the best thing, I love being out here having fun. You’re going to mess up and do something wrong, but the biggest thing for me is having fun. It’s a great group of guys. We’re having fun busting our butt,” Johnson said. “It’s not just messing around. We’re having fun but working hard and it’s great.”
Anytime a player misses an entire season due to injury, even though it’s tough to be off the field for an entire year, especially as their teammates are practicing during the week and preparing for games, but there is a silver lining in being able to participate in meetings and learn all he can while also rehabbing to hopefully get back on the field in the near future.
That is exactly how Johnson views last season, as a great time for him to not only acclimate himself with how things worked in the NFL, but also to get more than a bit familiar with how Jason Garrett and his staff liked to conduct business on a daily basis in the Dallas organization. It’s a process he’d rather not repeat by missing another full season, so he will take all those lessons he learned in 2012 into this season and beyond.
“I think that’s the positive thing you can take from it, the fact I was in every meeting. I got to lift extra weights and stay here in the off-season. So, I think as far as that, I think it’s better than if I would have come in, played right away,” Johnson said. “Obviously, I would have gained more experience on the field and things like that, but you can’t just sit here and pout the whole time. I took notes on every single thing and it kind of transferred over to now. I just had to be a pro on and off the field, look at guys to see how they practice and how they do it.”
One plus about this being year two with the Cowboys is that even though he didn’t play all of last year, he’s no longer considered a rookie, which means he no longer has to endure any of the rookie rites of passage like he did in 2012.
“We don’t have it that bad but I did some rookie hazing as far as supplying sunflower seeds for every meeting, that type of stuff. We’ve got a couple rookies now, so hopefully I don’t have to do that again,” Johnson said.
Admittedly, Cowboy fans don’t know much about this talented safety who played alongside his brother at EWU, other than the fact that he was a fourth-round pick in 2012 who missed all of his rookie season due to injury.
This young DB isn’t at all flashy or someone who is a big talker. Instead, he chooses to lead by example and let his performance on the field do all the talking, a mentality that definitely fits in well with this current group of Cowboys.
“Hopefully I can just do what I did in college, be a playmaker and lead by example. I’m never going to be the rah-rah guy, the Sean Lee or D-Ware guy that gets us going in the huddle. I think me and Barry Church are kind of the same way in that way, kind of just feed off guys like that, guys like Barry who played some last year, feed off guys like Sean and do whatever I can and whatever they ask me to,” Johnson said. “Hopefully I can be a playmaker and get the ball back for the offense like I did in college.”
He and Church developed a strong bond in 2012 since they are both guys who missed last season with injuries. And while he and his fellow safety are players the Cowboys figure to count on heavily this season, they also head into this campaign with something extra to prove.
“I think so. Our whole defense and our whole team has a chip on their shoulder, but I think me and Barry have kind of got a little bit bigger chip just because there’s got to be guys doubting us. I know there’s guys doubting me and doubting him coming off that injury. We just want to prove everyone wrong,” Johnson said. “It helps that our lockers are by each other. We’re kind of similar players, kind of similar attitudes when we’re on the field. So, it’s kind of easy to get along with him and easy to play with.”
And with the Cowboys deciding to keep him even though he never saw the field last year, it’s fair to say that there is a considerable amount of pressure on Matt Johnson heading into this season, seeing how Dallas also used a fourth-round pick on him in 2012 and the fact that the position he plays, safety, is one question mark heading into the start of camp in July.
Johnson isn’t too worried about such external pressure as he chooses to focus on what he can control, basically on how he can help America’s Team become more solidified in the secondary.
“I just want to help the team win. Obviously, there’s some pressure because the team kept me around. But I think if you worry about that too much you’re not going to be yourself. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel some pressure, but I think more than anything I just want to prove myself to these guys and have fun winning,” he said.