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2020 NFL Free Agency: Contract projection for cornerback Kevin Johnson

The Bills’ cornerback enters free agency for the second straight season.

Matt Warren is Associate Director of NFL coverage for SB Nation and previously covered the Bills for Buffalo Rumblings for more than a decade.

Last offseason, the Buffalo Bills signed oft-injured free-agent cornerback Kevin Johnson to come in and compete with second-year cornerback Levi Wallace for the number-two job opposite Tre’Davious White. While Johnson flashed that first-round ability, he ultimately finished behind the former undrafted player on the depth chart.

The story doesn’t end there. Buffalo platooned Johnson and Wallace at points in the season, with Johnson playing almost a third of the Bills’ defense snaps. He started in the Wild Card round against his former team and played 100% of the snaps while Wallace nursed an ankle injury.

There is another aspect, too: Johnson played 56% of the team’s special teams snaps in 2019. With Lorenzo Alexander and a bunch of other special teamers as free agents, that is added value.

Johnson signed for one year and $3 million a year ago on a prove-it deal after suffering a series of concussions. He shed the injury label in 2019 but also didn’t play a ton.

With the number-two cornerback job far from settled, Buffalo may want to bring back Johnson to compete or platoon again with Wallace. If they lose Johnson, they’ll need to add another outside cornerback. With all that in mind, let’s look at what it might cost to retain Johnson.

Here are some comparable contracts...

Bobby McCain
Miami Dolphins
Four years, $27 million extension (Five years, $27.7 million total)

This is a hefty bump for Johnson, but let’s look at the similarity. McCain signed in 2018 with one year remaining on his rookie deal, so I look at it as a five-year, $28 million contract. The $5.6 million average is a lot more palatable than $6.75 million AAV. McCain started only 15 combined games in the two years preceding his extension, mostly serving as the team’s nickel corner. In 2017, he played nearly two-thirds of Miami’s snaps and was clearly a key player on the team.

Eric Rowe
Miami Dolphins
Three years, $16.1 million

Rowe came to the Dolphins via the New England Patriots, following Brian Flores from defensive coordinator to head coach. Rowe was the Patriots’ starting cornerback in 2018 but was benched for the older Jason McCourty. It may or may not have been due to a groin injury that ultimately forced him to miss time and finish the year on injured reserve. Regardless, he has competed for a starting job every year of his career. He signed a one-year, $3.5 million contract for the 2019 season (very similar to Johnson) but signed a three-year deal in December after spending the season as the starter.

D.J. Hayden
Jacksonville Jaguars
Three years, $19 million in 2018

This is the high end for Johnson, but Hayden was a first-round pick, like Johnson, and teams love overpaying for former first-rounders hoping they can unlock their potential. He played in 16 games but only started one for the Detroit Lions on his one-year prove it deal—(See a pattern?)—but played 45% of the team’s snaps. Then in 2018 he signed his three-year pact with the Jaguars to be their starter. It hasn’t really worked out and he will likely be gone in 2020.

Contract projection

Three years
$15 million with $5 million guaranteed

Rowe’s deal provides a really good framework. All of his 2020 money was guaranteed to the tune of $5.4 million. He gets another $250k if he’s active for every game, paid in $15,625 per-game active bonuses.

The $5 million per season is below the averages on all of these contracts but Johnson’s injury history is severe. He will need to decide between betting on himself in terms of salary or taking less money later for more guaranteed money up front. (I went with the second option here.)

In order for this contract to make sense, Buffalo would need to commit to playing Johnson. Not necessarily as the starting CB2 or even as the “starting” slot CB, but he’d need to play 50% of the defensive snaps at least. As the fourth cornerback behind White, Wallace, and Taron Johnson, $5 million would be too much for an insurance policy even if he plays a ton of special teams.

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