Texas A&M hasn’t had a defensive player selected within the first two rounds of the NFL draft since 2017. DB Antonio Johnson can end the streak next cycle if he lives up to expectations. With a versatile scouting report and impressive athletic profile, Johnson shouldn’t wait long to hear his name called in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Antonio Johnson NFL draft profile
Johnson played both receiver and defensive back at East St. Louis High School in Illinois — and he didn’t just moonlight at either one. As a senior, he racked up 98 tackles and two interceptions on defense while taking 39 receptions for 830 yards and seven touchdowns. That was more than enough production to earn an Army All-American nod and a four-star billing on the recruiting trail.
With over 20 offers, including Alabama and Georgia, the fourth-highest ranked safety in the nation ultimately signed with Texas A&M. And it didn’t take long for him to become a household name in College Station. Injuries forced Johnson into the lineup as a true freshman, and he received valuable playing time down the stretch of the season. But 2021 was his coming-out party.
As a first-time starter, the Texas A&M DB led the Aggies in total defensive snaps (800) as they couldn’t keep him off the field. He generated 79 tackles (8.5 tackles for loss), a sack, a forced fumble, an interception, and six pass deflections, garnering second-team All-SEC honors. However, I believe the best has yet to come.
- Position: Defensive Back
- School: Texas A&M
- Current Year: Junior
- Height/Weight: 6’3″, 195 pounds
Antonio Johnson scouting report
Now a true junior with a year’s worth of starting experience under his belt and Leon O’Neal Jr. in the NFL, the arrow is pointing up for Johnson. He has been named to the Jim Thorpe Award watch list, given to the nation’s top defensive back. And even though he primarily lined up in the slot last season, here is what Jimbo Fisher had to say about Johnson’s role:
“He’s going to do a little bit of everything. There’s not much he can’t do. He’ll play nickel, safety, dime. We can move him around and match him up because he’s such a tremendous football player.”
Where Johnson wins
At 6’3″ and nearly 200 pounds, Johnson’s size is an obvious plus. But his athletic profile and strength combined with that frame make him special. The Texas A&M DB can take on and shed blocks from tight ends and linemen. His length suffocates ball carriers, aiding his excellent tackling technique. Johnson remains balanced, wraps up, and brings his legs through, leading to few missed tackles on film.
Playing in the nickel kept the Illinois native close to the ball — exactly where you want him. Even if he dropped back to a deeper safety look, Johnson’s rapid trigger eliminated runs breaking free up the middle or out wide. In the box, he sifts through congestion to stun running backs. He is also a terrific blitzer, juking RBs and linemen to reach the QB without being touched. Johnson plays a physical brand of football and lays his body on the line each play. Seriously, turn on his tape, and 90% of the time, you will see No. 27 in frame at the end of plays.
Much of that can be credited to Johnson’s instincts — he simply has an innate ability to flow to the football. However, he also clearly watches film. The Texas A&M DB routinely blows up screen plays (both WR and RB), quickly identify’s route concepts/play designs, and acts as a heat-seeking missile in the secondary. As soon as he keys on a receiver’s route from the slot, he’ll run the rest of it for them.
Additionally, Johnson is often one of the first defenders to react to options, RPOs, or delayed handoffs. And if he can’t make the tackle against runs, he will force ball carriers to where he has help — usually taking one or two blockers with him to free up his teammates to make the play.
As an athlete, Johnson simply doesn’t move like you would expect from a 6’3″ safety. He owns the burst to click and close in coverage and throttle downhill against the run. His change-of-direction ability is uncanny. And he possesses the speed to recover after initially losing reps, blanket crossers, and sprint from the line of scrimmage to the hash at the snap. But beyond speed, Johnson is an above-average lateral athlete. He bounces between gaps in run defense swiftly, and he rarely loses 1-on-1 in open-field situations. It helps that he doesn’t take poor pursuit angles leading to the matchup.
Johnson can plant a foot off his backpedal and fly forward to make a play. He consistently kept plays in front of him and limited yards after the catch. His feel in zone is impressive, as he smoothly passes off routes and picks up a new threat. In man coverage, Johnson can easily mirror tight ends and bigger slot receivers and knows to follow the hips of his assignment rather than fall for upper-body fakes.
At the catch point, he flashed the ability to play through the hands and to the ground. Watch his matchup with former Arkansas and first-round WR Treylon Burks last season, and you will witness Johnson’s coverage prowess in full. He made Burks’ day miserable and was still a menace against the run.
Adding to Johnson’s allure are his leadership and versatility. Nearly every snap, the Texas A&M DB communicated with his teammates and ensured the secondary was aligned properly and understood their tasks. We already know Johnson can hold up in the slot and box, even playing 40+ snaps near the LOS off the edge. I’d like to see him line up at traditional safety more often. And if offseason reports hold true, my wish should come true in 2022.
Johnson’s areas for improvement
There is a lot to like with Johnson, but there are also areas for improvement. As a bit of a high-cut athlete, Johnson isn’t the most fluid mover in space. While he has the speed to make up for it at times, it will only be a larger issue in the NFL. The lack of quickness from a backpedal to a speed-turn is concerning.
Compounding the issue is when in coverage, Johnson can open his hips too early and suffer from inefficient footwork. However, biting on the occasional double-moves is coachable.
There are also questions surrounding Johnson’s ball skills and deep range. I believe his receiver background and tenacity will lead to greater ball production as soon as this season, so I’m not too worried in that department. But his single-high safety range and zone-dropping ability haven’t been on display just yet. Still, his long speed, football IQ, and play recognition mitigate the apprehension.
The Texas A&M DB is prone to watching QBs too long, resulting in passes underneath his zone. Along similar lines, Johnson will carry receivers too long, often into other zones, leaving the flats open. Sometimes it is by design or to bait the QB into a short throw, but he commits to doing so when it isn’t needed. His awareness with his back to the LOS will only improve with time, but right now, it’s a negative on his scouting report.
Moreover, Johnson can shoulder tackle at times. Against bigger bodies or even smaller but quicker opponents, this leads to missed tackles or extra yards gained.
Current draft projection for Texas A&M DB Antonio Johnson
Overall, Johnson shouldn’t have an issue finding a home in the pros. He can fit a role in every scheme, whether it be as a safety/linebacker hybrid, big nickel, or an overhang defender. And if he receives a significant amount of deep safety reps in 2022 and plays well, we shouldn’t rule out a free safety/single-high position.
Questions will surround his deep safety prowess and skill set against the run, but Johnson owns first-round-caliber traits — the kind creative defensive coordinators salivate over.
While that lack of true classification — although I believe he is a safety with sought-after flexibility — could cause teams to overthink him, in the new-age NFL, don’t expect Johnson to fall past Round 2 in the 2023 NFL Draft.