It took more than a minute for Texas A&M safety Antonio Johnson to hear his name called in the 2023 NFL Draft. But the league’s loss could be the Jacksonville Jaguars’ gain after the Aggie heard his name called by the reigning AFC South champs.
Johnson’s slide into the fifth round was a shock to many given that he was graded as a likely first or second-round pick heading into the draft. Still, the Aggie safety has an opportunity to be an absolute steal for Jacksonville so long as he leverages the skillset that warranted him high praise in the first place.
The Jaguars finished the 2022 season with the 28th-ranked pass defense (238.5 YPG allowed). It was clear that an immediate upgrade was needed in the secondary, with fans and analysts alike expecting the team to go heavy on cornerback through the draft. That belief only fueled the grip surrounding the team’s bizarre move to not address the need on days 1 or 2.
However, by selecting Johnson on day 3 they picked up a talent that can make an immediate impact from the get-go. Better yet, he can make a play almost anywhere on the field, as he lined up in the slot (280 snaps), as a box safety (128 snaps), and at free safety (110 snaps) in 2022 alone.
Unlike other rookie defensive backs that will likely battle for backup spots, Johnson’s three-year experience with the Aggies could bolster his case to be the Jaguars’ starter at nickel. His resume includes lining up as a split zone safety and even linebacker in college, which means there should be a plethora of options for defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell to employ him.
At 6-2 and 198 lbs, Johnson possesses the size and strength to cover receivers in the slot and even tight ends with moderate speed. The Jaguars were already solid in run support (12th-ranked), but chances they could become elite given Johnson’s 83.7 run defense grade in 2022 per PFF (44th among all college safeties).
Johnson also proved to be impactful at pressuring the quarterback after receiving a 65.2 pass-rush grade per PFF. Caldwell could very well line him up in the slot with the sheer goal of creating pressure on an opposing signal-caller, and the stats show Jacksonville could use the jolt.
In 2022, they generated the seventh-fewest sacks in the NFL (35). Throw in a talent like Johnson into your rotation and chances are that number will rise significantly.
While some analysts felt Johnson’s ambiguous positional fit could be a red flag for some teams, the former Aggie has a chance to flip that script on its head. Instead, he’ll be equipped to make his presence felt from a multitude of spots on the field, making him one of the more versatile rookies in this 2023 class.