Niner Noise’s “Who Is?” series on San Francisco 49ers players in 2017 continues. And in this article, we take a look at cornerback Dontae Johnson and what to expect from him this season.
I was pretty excited about the San Francisco 49ers selecting former North Carolina State cornerback Dontae Johnson back in Round 4 of the 2014 NFL Draft.
At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Johnson was the prototypical big-bodied corner the Niners had lacked for years. He was going to be the next press-man defensive back San Francisco could use to great extent.
It just hasn’t happened.
San Francisco 49ers
Entering his fourth season at the NFL level, Johnson has become something of a forgotten commodity.
Johnson saw 467 snaps his rookie season, followed by 366 his second year. But in 2016, Johnson was on the field for a mere 101 snaps. And his Pro Football Focus coverage grade last year? A mere 67.0 — not good enough to solidify a starting job in San Francisco’s defense.
Perhaps not even a roster spot.
The Niners have only one true starting-caliber corner on their roster right now — Rashard Robinson. Yes, San Francisco drafted former Colorado corner Ahkello Witherspoon to take the No. 2 spot. But he likely won’t be ready to receiving starting reps right away.
In the meantime, the job is Johnson’s to lose. And he’ll have to prove he belongs.
Why He’ll Improve
Johnson is currently competing for the No. 2 corner job with fellow defensive back Keith Reaser.
And while the Santa Rosa Press Democrat’s Grant Cohn is giving Reaser a clear edge in this position battle, one can factor in Reaser’s 2016 PFF coverage grade (63.3) as a reason why Johnson could emerge as the winner.
Johnson has the size advantage over Reaser as well, as the latter stands two inches shorter and 10 pounds lighter.
There are those who suggest Johnson may wind up being a better fit in press-man coverage, such as the San Jose Mercury News‘ Cam Inman, who wrote:
"I do expect Rashard Robinson to start at one cornerback spot, and the other will be either Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser or perhaps Will Redmond. I’d go with Johnson right now to see his 6-2 length in press coverage."
Ironing out the kinks in defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s Cover 3 scheme may just be what Johnson is doing right now.
In terms of his body type, Johnson would appear to have the advantage over Reaser.
Why He’ll Regress
Late last season, I wrote a piece asking the question, “what ever happened to Johnson?”
The 25 year old, for all intents and purposes, pulled a bit of a disappearing act last season and was, essentially, a non-factor.
Part of this could be to Johnson’s poor coverage skills, which were pointed out on this particular 2016 play by Niners Wire’s Rob Lowder:
Plays like these may be the reason why Johnson was so scantly used last season. Aside from some special teams contributions, Johnson has yet to establish himself as a reliable corner.
And with Reaser seemingly playing well at OTAs, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Johnson lose out on this competition and be relegated to a fifth cornerback spot or even off the roster altogether.
What to Expect in 2017
It would be nice if Johnson could live up to the same potential I felt he had back in 2014. The only problem is this hasn’t come to fruition.
2017 likely marks the last chance Johnson will have to prove himself to San Francisco’s new coaching staff. And he hasn’t exactly gotten off on the right foot.
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There’s still time to cement a role within the defense, even if he loses out on this particular position battle. But being considered a forgotten commodity isn’t working in his favor at all right now, which puts his chances to stick around on the 53-man roster in serious jeopardy.
Johnson will need to make some serious strides in mandatory minicamp, training camp and the preseason to prove his value.
If not, don’t be shocked if he’s among the final roster cuts before Week 1 of the regular season.