Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson could use some help.
He was reliable in his first two seasons, but the rest of the secondary was the opposite. It got particularly bad last season, when the Bears allowed the fifth-most yards per pass, third-most touchdown passes and highest opponent passer rating — all while their pass rush ranked fourth in sacks.
Johnson was the only proven cornerback on the roster going into last season, and that problem flared up immediately in the opener against the Rams. It grew into a full-on blaze over the rest of the season with costly lapses against the Steelers, Ravens and Packers.
It’s no wonder new general manager Ryan Poles instantly identified that as a disaster and went to work on the rebuild by drafting Washington cornerback Kyler Gordon and Penn State safety Jaquan Brisker in the second round.
And it’s no wonder Johnson would like to see them get first-team snaps from the jump rather than gradually work their way up from the bottom of the depth chart.
“I’d throw ‘em in the fire,” he said. “I mean, they’re our first two draft picks. We’ve got to know what they can do right now. And then we can know what the attitude and what the vibe is heading into camp.
“If I was the coach, I wouldn’t ease them into it. I would throw them out there.”
The Bears almost certainly will.
Poles is hoping Gordon and Brisker will be long-term answers, but he also needs them right away. Without major contributions from then, the Bears likely will have many of the same troubles that hurt them last season.
After Johnson, the next corners on the depth chart come with question marks. Duke Shelley is still trying to establish himself as a starting-caliber player, Kindle Vildor got benched last season and Thomas Graham spent most of his rookie year on the practice squad.
So the secondary’s chances still hinge largely on Johnson continuing his ascent at 23. He proved himself as a No. 1 cornerback last season, and the Bears are counting on that holding true.
Johnson has allowed just 58% completions when targeted the last two seasons. He was the only Bears cornerback to hold quarterbacks under 65% in 2021.
The only real disappointment has been that he has just one interception in 28 starts. He’s eager to change that as coach Matt Eberflus endeavors to shape the Bears into a fearsome crew of ballhawks.
Eberflus described Johnson as “still a work in progress” who needs to keep improving like any other young player and added, “just keep working, and we’ll see where he goes.”
Johnson didn’t seem to mind the challenge of proving himself to the new staff.
“It’s a complete reset,” he said. “Everything I’ve done in the past with the other coaches… it really doesn’t mean anything. The film is not going to lie to you, but… they want me to show them what I can do in person, moving forward.”
At this point, though, there’s no doubting his capability.
He spent his rookie season as an understudy to former all-pro Kyle Fuller, then grew into the Bears’ leader at the position last season. The next step is climbing into the NFL’s elite, and judging by the way he reacted gleefully to Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander’s record-breaking $84 million contract this week, Johnson sees himself reaching that level.
“I feel confident as ever,” he said. “There’s nothing I can’t do.”