Matt Johnson has potential to be a real find

The following is the 3rd in a series of draft profiles for the
Dallas Cowboys selected players from April’s draft.  These profiles are
put together after watching significant amounts of tape from each
player, and is an attempt to examine their resumes and play to get an
idea of how they might fit in best with Dallas come training

Matt Johnson
Eastern Washington Strong Safety 6’1, 212

40 time: 4.53, Bench Press: 18

July 22, 1989 (22)

When you are looking at draft prospects on film, the most important thing you can possibly do is to trust your eyes and not regurgitate opinions that are being fed to you.  Often times, during the spring and summer, we hear about draft prospects from two places:  his former school (a coach is brought on to be interviewed) or his current employer which will say almost 100% sparkling things about a player and before long we realize that everyone that the team has drafted has a chance to be a great player.

While this is simply human instinct to always present an optimistic case to the public until proven otherwise, it is sometimes not the best idea to simply fall in line and recite the “company line” on every player that is ever signed.  There is a large body of work that exists, and if you spend some time combing to find it, you can look at this evidence yourself and try to come to your own decisions.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the independent study will be any more accurate than the team-based optimism, but it at least makes you feel like you checked their math.  And that is what we recently did with Matt Johnson from Eastern Washington, and the rest of the 2012 Draft Class.

And of all of the players who were taken after the top two picks (Claiborne and Crawford) on the Cowboys board, this is the player that I am most optimistic about in terms of being a guy who in 2 or 3 years they could have a real find on their hands.

In a brief summary, I think he is a fantastic safety in college, with all of the characteristics that one looks for when trying to find a playmaker at that spot.  He fell down the board to #135 for any number of reasons.  He tore his bicep in his senior season and missed considerable time.  He went to school at Eastern Washington where he was part of the 1-AA/FCS National Championship team in 2010.  But, that level of competition is not what the player will face in the NFC East.  These and other characteristics have put him in a spot where he will have to prove his worth.  But, I think he is up for this challenge.

If you spend some time watching him on the eye-stressing red turf at Eastern Washington, he really jumps off the screen as a playmaker.  His most recognizable attribute is the way he is always rolling downhill from his deep spot in the secondary to the ball.  He is a ball hawk who arrives with intentions of ending the play on the spot.  He has supreme confidence in knowing where he is going and this causes a very speedy key-and-diagnose process.  Surely, this is something that might be apparent only when a player becomes a senior in college and we must wait and see if he still plays with that swagger in a whole new environment where things are happening at a different speed with a different level of scrutiny if things go wrong, but his confidence and knowledge of what his defense was doing was a very impressive trait.

Then, with fluid athletic skills he seems to find the ball with great ease.  Again, this must be qualified with the admission that he might have been one of the best athletes on the field in most of his games in college and that could change greatly in the big leagues, but he makes plays, blows up runs, and finds the ball.  In college, his play in the secondary led to an amazing number of career interceptions (17), but I would not say that makes him a free safety.  In fact, he does have some deep angle issues that might be evident at the next level where he allows the occasional route to get him turned around.  But, his skills as a strong safety in the box are actually what I like most.  And when today’s NFL requires a safety that can play both spots so that a coordinator can interchange concepts and roles from snap to snap, Johnson seems like a real strong candidate for this with position versatility.

Safety is a very difficult position to project from the college ranks to the NFL.  It does seem that many must be taken high up the board and in the 1st Round if you want a truly elite safety these days.  But, there are a number of players who slip through the cracks who may not be elite, but they are very useful.  Maybe one of better examples of that was in the 2005 draft when safety Jim Leonhard went undrafted after a decorated career at the University of Wisconsin.  He ended up being a versatile safety that could do a number of things for Rex Ryan in both Baltimore and New York, mostly because of a great combination of recognition, aggressiveness, and speed.  Now, Johnson is certainly not a punt returner nor is he a guy who can run a sub 4.4, but useful safeties fall through the cracks all of the time.

Meanwhile, Dallas has one of the easier safety ranks to break into.  Since the days of wonder when the Cowboys had the combination of a young Roy Williams and a veteran Darren Woodson, the team has widely ignored the position when it comes to major investment.  With the exception of giving Ken Hamlin a large extension (that he never saw the majority) they have had a series of stop gaps and developmental projects.  And, in my estimation, the lack of attention here has not assisted the Cowboys quest of building an excellent secondary by any stretch.  Poor safety play puts more pressure on the corners, especially, as we saw in Week 17 against Victor Cruz, that if a corner gets beat on a 5-yard out, there will be no safety assistance (not sure where Gerald Sensabaugh was going on that play) in keeping him from running 70 more yards.

Johnson does need to clean up his tackling in certain spots.  This isn’t to say that he is a poor tackler, but sometimes he does close with such speed and intent that he can overkill and miss.  But, this aggressive play from a safety is a breath of fresh air after seeing “conservative” safety play from so many who have rolled through the spot in recent years.  To make plays, a safety has to occasionally go for it and take a chance.  Yes, he will get burned.  I anticipate that veteran QBs will see his downhill style on film and attempt to play action over his head all day long.  All of them occasionally get burned, but at least try to make something happen.  It will be revealed whether Johnson can do it at the NFL level in the months to come, but for now, I think he will give them options and bring his play to the special teams.  And he should be excellent there from Day 1.

Freshman and Sophomore Year Cut Ups #40:

Junior and Senior Year Cut-Ups #5:

And if you so desire, you can watch Matt Johnson’s Pro Day Here.

Summary: I assume it is clear right now that I think very highly of Johnson.  He was very impressive in college and may have slid down the board due to being hurt as a senior.  But, he is a very smart player who was the captain of a winning team.  He was also a player who intercepted more passes than just about anyone during the time he was in college.  This speaks to his hands and his brain.  He is the type of player that will not be rushed, but if he can become comfortable in the Rob Ryan defense, I think they can do a number of things with him, from run blitzing to deep safety.  He will not make every play, but if he keeps his downhill approach, I do have high hopes for his upside that could make him a starter in the near future in this secondary.  And if they find a starter at pick #135, then this draft most likely swings into the successful category.