San Francisco 49ers: What Ever Happened to Cornerback Dontae Johnson?

San Francisco 49ers: What Ever Happened to Cornerback Dontae Johnson?

Updated Mar. 4, 2020 8:58 p.m. ET

Nearing three full years at the NFL level, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Dontae Johnson has gone from a promising rookie to a mere afterthought on the Niners roster. What happened?

Back when the San Francisco 49ers selected former North Carolina State cornerback Dontae Johnson in Round 4 of the 2014 NFL Draft, there were more than a few thoughts the 6-foot-2, 200-pound defensive back could emerge as a legitimate force within the Niners secondary.


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Even I thought he would be a welcomed addition, especially considering how Johnson suddenly emerged as the team’s tallest corner after being drafted.


2014 came and went. So did 2015. And now, in 2016, Johnson is little more than just another depth piece.

His rookie year, Johnson saw 467 snaps. In 2015, he saw 366. But this year, Johnson has seen a mere 69.

What happened?

A Crowded 49ers Secondary

General manager Trent Baalke has an affinity for defensive backs. And he added three more — Will Redmond, Rashard Robinson and Prince Charles Iworah — in the 2016 NFL Draft.

Combine this with moving Jimmie Ward to the nickel position, and training camp reps would have been slim for Johnson at best.

And it didn’t help Johnson suffered a camp injury, as illustrated by Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee last June.

The emergence of Robinson (6-foot-1) might have negated the need to keep Johnson in a prominent role based on height alone. Robinson overtook Johnson on the depth chart pretty early and hasn’t looked back.

He’s the future for sure. But this doesn’t quite explain why Johnson is at the tail end of the depth chart.

Lackluster Play

Players have to earn the right to climb a depth chart. And it’s safe to say Johnson has let his grasp slip on a potential starting gig.

November 20, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell (19, left) scores a touchdown against San Francisco 49ers cornerback Dontae Johnson (36) during the fourth quarter at Levi’s Stadium. The Patriots defeated the 49ers 30-17. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

With Robinson, Tramaine Brock and Ward assuming the Nos. 1 through 3 cornerback roles, Johnson is little more than a reserve option.

And plays like this (h/t Rob Lowder of Niners Wire) illustrate why Johnson might not be seeing much of the field:

But let’s look at Pro Football Focus‘ grading system for an odd comparison. Robinson’s overall PFF grade is 67.9. Not great, but certainly better than fellow corner Keith Reaser’s 57.8 mark.

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    And Reaser has seen 295 snaps this season — 226 more than Johnson.

    Perhaps Johnson isn’t quite a fit in defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s already questionable scheme. Or maybe defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley hasn’t been impressed with Johnson’s growth.

    Or, in all likelihood, Johnson simply hasn’t improved at all since 2014. And he’s quickly turning into another Baalke bust.