49ers 2020 ‘Who Is?’ series: Welcome back Dontae Johnson

Defensive back Dontae Johnson #36 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
Defensive back Dontae Johnson #36 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images) /

Dontae Johnson has ended up being a 49ers reserve cornerback the past few years, and the same could be the case again in 2020.

There were plenty of reasons to be excited about the San Francisco 49ers selecting former North Carolina State cornerback Dontae Johnson back in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

Johnson had promise, the ideal body type at 6-foot-2 and looked like he could develop into a quality starter in short order.

At first, that’s how things were panning out. Johnson’s rookie season was good in a limited role, his second year, amid plenty of roster changes, was decent enough. But things quickly fell apart in 2016. When head coach Kyle Shanahan took over in 2017, Johnson became a key piece again, starting all 16 regular-season games.

After that, Johnson ended up being the epitome of a journeyman defensive back, although he’s potentially found a home again with San Francisco:

Dontae Johnson Defense & Fumbles Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/9/2020.

The journey listed above doesn’t include Johnson’s second go-around with the Niners, which took place during the summer of 2019. Johnson didn’t make the cut originally, signed with the Los Angeles Chargers, then returned back to the 49ers in October of last year where he found himself back and forth off the roster as essentially the 53rd man on a 53-man group.

San Francisco re-signed Johnson to a one-year deal in 2020, likely pegging him as a training camp body with the hopeful upside of being a back-end contributor on the depth chart.

The 49ers do have some depth questions at this position this offseason, so there’s an outside chance Johnson hangs around into September.

If so, what could the 28-year-old Johnson possibly offer at this point in his career?

Why Dontae Johnson improves with 49ers in 2020

Johnson’s prior service with San Francisco, particularly that 16-game slate in 2017, bodes well for him over younger, more inexperienced cornerbacks like Emmanuel Moseley and the rookie, DeMarkus Acy.

Johnson also hasn’t had the benefit of playing much behind a potent Niners pass rush, magnified by the fact he saw just 20 snaps for San Francisco in a limited role last year.

On top of that, Johnson could stand to benefit merely by assuming a quality backup role this season, relying more on his veteran savvy amid a group mostly comprised of younger players outside the top veteran, Richard Sherman.

Why Dontae Johnson regresses with 49ers in 2020

At this stage, it’s safe to assume Johnson is who he is. The trajectory isn’t going to go up much even if his body type fits what defensive coordinator Robert Saleh prefers in his boundary cornerbacks.

Familiarity with San Francisco’s system could provide some benefit to Johnson, having played fully within it back in 2017. But Johnson’s 50.3 overall Pro Football Focus grade that year points to the notion it’s not something in which he thrives. And it’s unclear if an upgraded pass rush could help much.

Chances of making 49ers’ 53-man roster in 2020

He isn’t a long shot, but Johnson has to be viewed on the weaker end of the bubble.

One of the things working in his favor is the Niners not having a lot of experienced depth behind Moseley, Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon. Fellow corner Jason Verrett is in the mix, yes. But Verrett’s injury history works against him while benefiting Johnson.

It’s a stretch to think Johnson would get vastly better than what he displayed in recent seasons, and the ideal scenario would likely be for him to assume a veteran’s presence during camp, relinquishing his roster spot to one of the younger defensive backs developing properly.

Even if that’s the case, and Johnson winds up being cut, it wouldn’t be shocking to see the 49ers call on Johnson again at various points during the season, unless he’s signed elsewhere, in the event another cornerback goes down with injury.

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That’s probably the safest and most accurate prediction for Johnson’s upcoming 2020 campaign.