It’s widely documented that the San Francisco 49ers won’t be major players in the 2020 NFL free agency period. No need to explain that to start off here — but there is a need to state that there is certainly a value at positions of need on the lower end of the cap-space spectrum.
Take veteran cornerback Kevin Johnson for instance. He’s coming off his first full season of action since 2017, having logged over 400 snaps with the Buffalo Bills in 2019. Johnson didn’t make the splash plays you’d expect from a ‘top-tier’ cornerback in the free-agent market, and after signing a 1-year, $3M deal with the Bills last offseason, he will likely look for a lower-valued, one-year deal in an attempt to stick with another team this year.
The 49ers could be just that team as Johnson transitioned to more of a full-time outside cornerback later in the year and could pair nicely with Richard Sherman occupying the other outside cornerback spot. Johnson didn’t make those splash plays, but he also didn’t allow a touchdown in his primary coverage last season, according to PFF.
Johnson was a solid coverage defender all year long, and that’s a welcome change for the former first-round pick after he flashed in his second season with the Houston Texans back in 2016. His ability to stick with fast, rangy receivers on the outside seemed to be back up to par with that first-round selection.
He ran stride for stride with Michael Gallup in the game against Dallas above and broke up two passes against the Cowboys. He has 16 career pass breakups and has also shown a strong ability to come down in run defense as well. Even at his worst, Johnson has proven that tackling and fundamentals have not been an issue.
Johnson’s first meaningful snaps on a football field in nearly two years were a success in 2019 and that’s righting the ship based upon his career trajectory. He may not warrant the big bucks of a guy like Byron Jones or a Chris Harris Jr., but he certainly warrants a job on the outside at cornerback. At just 27 years old, Johnson should still have enough left in him for a decent contract even after a potential 1-year prove-it deal this offseason if he can prove himself healthy and that 2019 and 2016 weren’t outliers.
Go back and watch any Texans game from 2016 if you want to know what Johnson can potentially bring to the table.
There’s high-reward and low-risk in Johnson’s signing and that’s just the kind of deal the 49ers should be in the market for in 2020.