The Titans corners were bad in 2016. Really bad. If you follow this team you don’t need me to convince you of that fact, but I’m going to do it anyway. Below are some stats that help illustrate exactly what ailed the Titans defense last year.
- Opponent Passing Yards Per Game: 269.2 (30th in NFL)
- Opponent Passing Play Percentage: 65.47% (30th in NFL)
- Opponent Yards Per Pass Attempt: 6.8 (16th in NFL)
- Opponent Passing First Down Percentage: 70.06% (32nd in NFL)
- Opponent Interceptions Thrown Percentage: 1.89% (22nd in NFL)
- Pass Defense DVOA Overall Rating: +17.6% (26th in NFL)
- Pass Defense DVOA vs #1 WR: +1.3% (17th in NFL)
- Passing Yards Allowed to #1 WR Per Game: 86.9 (32 in NFL)
- Pass Defense DVOA vs #2 WR: +22.2% (31st in NFL)
- Passing Yards Allowed to #2 WR Per Game: 66.3 (32nd in NFL)
- Pass Defense DVOA vs Other WRs: -0.5% (15th in NFL)
- Passing Yards Allowed to Other WRs Per Game: 52.4 (22nd in NFL)
- Pass Defense DVOA vs TE: -13.5% (8th in NFL)
- Passing Yards Allowed to TE Per Game: 54.9 (16th in NFL)
- Pass Defense DVOA vs RB: +36.0% (30th in NFL)
- Passing Yards Allowed to RB Per Game: 48.7 (29th in NFL)
The ones in bold are of particular interest to me. The first of those is Opponent Passing Play Percentage which shows us that teams chose to pass against the Titans at a higher rate than any NFL team besides Dallas and Atlanta. Sometimes this percentage is more of a reflection of game flow than a sign of a true weakness. For example, it makes sense that Dallas and Atlanta were the top 2 since they spent 58.7% and 61.9% of game time with the lead in 2016 which forced their opponents to pass to play catch up. That was not the case for the Titans as they held the lead for just 41.4% of game time, the least of any team in the top 6 of Opponent Passing Play Percentage. Teams chose to throw the ball against the Titans because it was the path of least resistance, not because they had to.
The next two stats that I want to talk about are particularly alarming. The Titans gave up the most passing yards per game in the NFL to BOTH #1 and #2 receivers per Football Outsiders. Its hard to overstate how bad that is, and it is a clear indictment of the cornerback play. This probably doesn’t come as a huge surprise if you watched them play this year, but I thought it was worth pointing out exactly how bad the situation was.
The good news is that the offseason is here and the Titans have a competent (and potentially great) GM, loads of cap space and draft capital, and a talented crop of free agent and rookie corners to choose from.
That brings me to today’s free agency deep dive. Trumaine Johnson may be the best corner to hit the market when the market opens on March 9th so let’s get to know him a little better.
- Age: 27 (will turn 28 on 1/1/2018)
- Height: 6’-2”
- Weight: 208 lbs
- College: Montana
- Experience: 5 years
- Drafted in 3rd round (#65 overall) of 2012 NFL draft by the Rams
Trumaine Johnson Career Stats.csv
|2016||Los Angeles Rams||14||57||11||1|
|2015||St. Louis Rams||14||71||17||7|
|2014||St. Louis Rams||9||36||6||3|
|2013||St. Louis Rams||16||68||11||3|
|2012||St. Louis Rams||16||31||8||2|
Here is what NFL.com had to say about Johnson going in to the 2012 NFL Draft:
Johnson is a lanky defender who has the athletic ability to stay in a receiver's hip and make plays. He uses his arms effectively in press coverage and jabs receivers to interrupt their routes and timing within the offense. He understands when to react in zone and possesses the long speed to take risks there and still recover. He is good at reading the receiver's hips, reacting to their drop and quickly making a play on the ball. He is a very effective tackler and imposing athlete at the position.
Johnson could be knocked for not having experience covering receivers in top-notch conferences like other corners at the top of the draft board. There will undoubtedly be a learning curve for him at the next level. Although he is a good tackler against the run, he can get caught on blocks at times and needs to learn to shed more quickly.
How Johnson Fits the Titans
It is a little bit surprising that a corner as talented as Trumaine Johnson is going to be a free agent at all. In 2015, he paired with Janoris Jenkins to form one of the best corner tandems in the NFL for the Rams. When both Johnson and Jenkins were set to be free agents after the 2015 season the Rams had some tough decisions to make. They decided to give the franchise tag to Johnson to keep him with the team, and allowed Jenkins to walk and sign a big deal with the Giants as a big part of their defensive overhaul last offseason.
After choosing Johnson over Jenkins most assumed that a long term deal for Tru’ would be a priority for the Rams this season, but reports are now indicating that the team is planning to move on without their star corner in 2017 as they begin to re-tool under new head coach Sean McVay.
Heard for a while #Rams will let "Fisher guys" (WR Kenny Britt & CB Trumaine Johnson) hit free agency. Curious if McVay/Phillips change that— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) January 14, 2017
So how would he fit the Titans? Johnson is a big, physical corner with a nose for the football. Since coming in to the league in 2012, Johnson is 9th in the NFL in interceptions with 16 and 21st in passes defensed with 54. He came on the scene as a full time starter in his second season and turned in an excellent year with 3 interceptions and 12 pass breakups credited to him. A sprained MCL cost him the first half of the 2014, but despite playing less than half the year he still managed to tally another 3 interceptions and 6 pass breakups. 2015 was the year when it all came together for Tru’. He came up with 7 picks and 17 PBU’s on his way to a top 20 ranking among corners according to PFF. This season was a little bit of a let down after his big season in 2015. Playing under the franchise tag and without Janoris Jenkins on the other side of the field to balance the secondary, he finished with just 1 interception and 11 pass breakups. He also missed a couple games midseason due to a sprained ankle which also likely hindered his performance after a quicker than usual return in Week 8. However, he still rated highly in PFF’s grading system finishing with an overall grade of 81.0 good for 26th among all corners, and after watching most of his reps on tape he actually played quite well in 2016, but just missed a couple interceptions that would have changed the way most are viewing him this offseason.
Johnson’s career passer rating against was 67.1 coming in to the 2016 season (as of this writing I cannot find data on 2016 passer rating against stats) which was the best of any corner from the 2012 draft class, including his former teammate Jenkins and last year’s free agent steal, Casey Hayward. That is an elite number.
The first thing that stands out about Tru’ is his ball skills. He was recruited as a wide receiver during his high school years and it shows in his play in the NFL. This play you will see him reading and jumping a stop route at the sticks on 3rd down. He almost exclusively played off coverage for the Rams which allowed him to keep his eyes in the backfield on plays like this and use his excellent instincts and quickness to take away short throws.
Here is an example of his ability to go up and high point a pass on a deep ball. His length is elite for a corner and it shows up all the time when watching him on tape.
The next shot again shows Johnson playing off coverage and keeping his eyes on the quarterback. This time he is sitting over Calvin Johnson. He reads the dig all the way, beats Calvin to the spot, and then takes it to the house.
As I mentioned, Tru’s length and ability to read and break show up constantly on tape. Here he is able to simply reach over the top of Jaron Brown to break up the pass.
This is another play from the same game. He’s covering the speedy John Brown on this play and gives him a little extra cushion, but is able to break and use his length to break up the pass on the out route nearly getting a pick.
On the next play he has deep third responsibility in a Cover 3 so he’s bracketing Floyd to the outside. When Floyd breaks in on the deep dig, Tru breaks and is able to do a great job of reaching over and getting his hand on the ball to knock it out. He shows some of his physicality here as well.
Johnson has good size and strength which help him in run support and coming up to make plays on screens. Here, he sheds the WR block and makes the tackle in run support in the red zone.
Here is an example on a tight end screen pass. Watch him avoid the pulling offensive lineman and make the play on Bennett. This play was well schemed and should have gone for a big play for the Patriots, but Johnson made a great individual effort.
To be fair, Johnson comes with some drawbacks as well. For one, he is likely to be the highest paid of all of the cornerbacks hitting the free agent market with Spotrac projecting a 4 year, $50M deal for an average value of $12.5M per year. He has also had some brushes with the law in his past. While in college at Montana he was arrested in an incident where an officer was pushed while trying to break up a party. He then got a DUI in 2013 during his rookie season while back in Montana visiting friends. He has stayed out of trouble since though so one would hope that he has put these issues behind him.
Additionally, he has struggled a little bit with injuries over the years, missing at least two regular season games in each of the past three seasons, although none of those injuries have been recurring or required surgery to repair.
There are very few drawbacks when it comes to his play on the field. Trumaine Johnson has been one of the best and most underrated corners in the NFL the last few years. He has played the vast majority of his career in Gregg Williams’ hyper aggressive defense, often being left without help over the top. Despite his size, length, and strength, he rarely was asked to play press man coverage. You would think this would be something he could excel at in the right situation though. He has been at his best when he can play zone, read the quarterback’s eyes, and then break and make a play on the ball. This skillset could fit well in LeBeau’s zone blitzing scheme, and he brings a playmaking ability that is sorely lacking in the Titans current secondary. I think Tru’ would be one of the best fits at corner out of all of the free agent options available to the Titans this offseason.
Previously covered Free Agents in this series:
Bubble Boys (players on the roster bubble)