49ers roster 2021: An under-the-radar Dontae Johnson

San Francisco 49ers defensive back Dontae Johnson (48) Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
San Francisco 49ers defensive back Dontae Johnson (48) Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

The 49ers brought back reserve cornerback Dontae Johnson, and his re-signing could be one of those underrated moves heading into 2021.

The San Francisco 49ers re-signing 29-year-old cornerback Dontae Johnson to a one-year deal earlier this offseason certainly didn’t create a lot of buzz. And whatever attention it did receive probably didn’t generate a good deal of positive responses.

Yet the Niners appear to value Johnson a lot more than the fanbase. When one dives a bit deeper, it’s understandable why.

True, Johnson never truly panned out as a starting-caliber cornerback during his initial stint with San Francisco after being selected in Round 4 of the 2014 NFL Draft, bouncing around the league a bit after 2017 and even off and on the 49ers’ own roster again between 2019 and 2021.

It must be tough being the 53rd player on a 53-man roster sometimes.

Dontae Johnson Defense & Fumbles Table
6 yr6 yrSFO84252702502421.01811522957
1 yr1 yrBUF100.0
1 yr1 yrLAC200.0

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 6/28/2021.

At the low end, the Niners brought Johnson back as a training camp body, an elder veteran who can help mentor and push their two rookie cornerbacks, Ambry Thomas and Demmodore Lenoir.

Yet there’s a good chance Johnson carves out a niche role for himself as a primary reserve, supporting the presumed starting trio of Jason Verrett, Emmanuel Moseley and K’Waun Williams.

Niner Noise’s “Who is?” series explores the wide-spreading possible outcomes for Johnson.

49ers’ high-end prospectus for Dontae Johnson in 2021

Johnson has been a full-time starter before under head coach Kyle Shanahan, and the cornerback has been familiar with San Francisco’s defensive scheme under former coordinator Robert Saleh, including some of the transitions likely to take place with first-year coordinator DeMeco Ryans.

And for those thinking Johnson was terrible over 14 games played last year, Pro Football Focus says otherwise, giving him a not-bad 67.7 overall grade in 2020.

On top of that, of Johnson’s 273 defensive snaps, 71 of those were in coverage at nickel cornerback, which further increases Johnson’s versatility.

Verrett and Williams both have extensive injury histories, with Verrett seeing just a handful of regular-season games between 2016 and 2019 and Williams missing eight games last year. So, if neither Thomas nor Lenoir are ready to go, Johnson could be the go-to player if the 49ers suffer a serious injury.

Potentially more, too, if Moseley winds up being the reserve and Johnson the starter.

49ers’ low-end prospectus for Dontae Johnson in 2021

Johnson’s one-year deal is worth up to $1.075 million but carries zero in guaranteed money, meaning the Niners aren’t committed to keeping him around for any length of time whatsoever.

The back end of San Francisco’s cornerback room isn’t overly impressive or imposing, which works in Johnson’s favor. But if the two rookies impress enough during camp and into the preseason, and the 49ers wind up seeing one of their other depth players shine to a point where they can’t keep him off the roster, Johnson could be made expendable once more.

Should that be the case, Johnson would likely find himself the 54th player on a regular-season 53-man roster, although it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Niners call him back at the soonest point of need.

After all, that happened quite regularly in 2019 and 2020.

But the big reality for Johnson this season is likely as a primary reserve for the starters, guarding against injury and at least until that point where players like Thomas and/or Lenoir are good to go.

Next. 4 reasons why Trey Lance starts for 49ers in 2021. dark