The Buffalo Bills have run a nickel defense as their de facto base defense for the better part of the last five years. With that in mind, the third corner, or nickel defender if that’s your preferred name for the position, becomes an actual starter. Gone are the days where a broadcast crew would include the nickel defenders in a “sub package” graphic, as more and more teams go away from traditional 4-3 and 3-4 base fronts and move towards a defensive back-heavy scheme.
Now, for much of the last few years, Buffalo has had one of the NFL’s best slot corners. And while that person stayed the same last season, the advanced metrics show a clear regression. Was it a blip on the proverbial radar, or was it a sign of things to come?
In today’s edition of “90 players in 90 days,” we discuss Buffalo’s slot corner — a player I think is primed for a better year in 2023 than his 2022 numbers indicate.
Name: Taron Johnson
Height/Weight: 5’11”, 192 pounds
Age: 26 (27 on 7/27/2023)
Experience/Draft: 6; selected by the Bills in the fourth round (No. 121 overall) of the 2018 NFL Draft
College: Weber State
Acquired: Fourth-round draft choice
Financial situation (per Spotrac): Johnson enters the second year of his three-year, $24 million contract extension that he signed in October 2021. He carries a cap number of $9.25 million this season. Buffalo is responsible for a dead-cap charge of $8.745 million if he’s released prior to the start of the season. As a vested veteran, Johnson’s entire base salary, a value of $5.505 million, becomes fully guaranteed if he’s on the roster for Week 1.
2022 Recap: Johnson once again served as the nickel corner, but given that Buffalo’s base defense has been the nickel for the better part of the last five seasons, he was a starter yet again. Johnson played in every one of Buffalo’s games, and he’s played 16 contests in each of the past three seasons now after missing nine games to injury in his first two NFL seasons combined. Johnson set a career high in total snaps on defense, playing on 969 snaps, which worked out to 92% of the team’s total. That was tops among Buffalo’s defensive players, as it seemed that everyone else was injured at some point during the year.
Johnson totaled 90 tackles and nine pass breakups on the season, each of which was good for fourth and third on the squad in those respective categories. He added an interception, a fumble recovery, and six tackles for loss. His coverage numbers took a rather large nosedive, as he allowed seven touchdowns on the season — that’s as many as he’d allowed in his entire career prior to last season — but given the number of injuries around him in the secondary, it tells me more that he was asked to do things that he wouldn’t otherwise have needed to do more so than he’s on the decline.
Positional outlook: Johnson is one of 10 corners on the roster, but it’s only Siran Neal and Cam Lewis outside of him who specialize in playing the slot role. Alex Austin, Christian Benford, Kaiir Elam, Dane Jackson, Ja’Marcus Ingram, and Tre’Davious White are the other corners.
2023 Offseason: Johnson is healthy and participating in offseason workouts to date.
2023 Season outlook: Barring injury, Johnson is not only set for the roster, but he’s almost certain to be one of the team’s starters once again. There was a brief moment in time last season where, thanks to his struggles, the team experimented with Cam Lewis in the slot over Johnson. However, Lewis was injured, Johnson’s play improved, and the notion wasn’t something that the coaching staff seemed to entertain again. It’s good to know that the team is always evaluating its players to the point where they won’t merely play the guy earning the most money, and with Johnson, that cap number is one of the highest on the roster. He’s slated to occupy the No. 7 spot on the roster in terms of highest cap numbers, trailing only Josh Allen, Tre’Davious White, Stefon Diggs, Dion Dawkins, Mitch Morse, and Micah Hyde, respectively.
Given his role on defense and his dead-cap number, he’s not at risk of becoming a cap casualty this year, but if he struggles again at any point, the Bills could choose to move on after the season. I don’t think that’s going to happen, as a year with some better injury luck should improve the supporting cast around him, which should only make his job easier. Johnson is one of the league’s best slot corners. Here’s hoping that last year’s struggles stay in the past while Johnson continues to prove his mettle on the field.