The Arizona Cardinals defense gave up more passing touchdowns than any team in the league last year so it should be no surprise that upgrading the secondary was a major point of emphasis this off season. The Cardinals biggest free agent signing, Bryant McFadden, is expected to start at one corner back spot and third round pick Rashad Johnson is also expected to play a significant role as a backup safety. That's a tall order for a guy who has yet to play his first down of NFL football but Johnson seems to be exactly what the doctor ordered. At the University of Alabama Johnson went from walk-on to just the second two-time team captain in school history. During that time he endured a position change ( running back to safety), a coaching change (Mike Shula to Nick Saban) yet still managed to rack up 224 tackles, 19 pass breakups and five interceptions while being named first team All-SEC both seasons as a starter. To put the cherry on top of Johnson's career to this point, he was kind enough to sit down for a quick interview with your very own Revenge of the Birds.
With the starters at strong and free safety (Adrian Wilson and Antrel Rolle respectively) practically set in stone Johnson is most likely battling for playing time with Aaron Francisco and Keith Lewis. He will undoubtedly be a factor on special teams early in his career, but how quickly can he become a starter and what should we expect from him this season?
What to expect early on: It's possible that Johnson could step in and immediately become the Cardinals' third safety and if that's the case he'll receive plenty of time with the regular defense. Given Rolle's ability to slide down to corner in passing situations and Wilson's ability to create havoc around the line of scrimmage the Cardinals third and even fourth safeties get much more playing time compared to other teams. Johnson might be the best fit as the third safety because he's the closest thing to a 'center fielder' that they currently have on the roster and he's capable of playing with the understanding that keeping the play in front of him is more important that providing run support or making plays near the line of scrimmage. That ability to protect against the deep ball, read the quarterbacks eyes and make a play on the ball sets him apart from just about every other safety on the roster. It's also possible that the Cardinals could take it very slow with Johnson as they have with most rookies since Whisenhunt took over as head coach. If that's the case, Johnson could be restricted to special teams play until later in the season.
What he will struggle with early on: The two primary areas that I think he might struggle in this season will be the speed and physicality of the game. In our interview with him these were to two areas that he listed as his weaknesses:
As far as my weaknesses, I'd say that in this league you just need to be bigger, stronger and faster. The players are a lot better up here so I just need to improve in all of those areas because these guys are stronger and faster.
Despite staring in the speed-heavy SEC, his draft status took a big hit when he posted a forty time in the low 4.5's and his slender frame (5'11, 203) will need to be bulked up in order to handle larger receivers and be solid tackler. Several scouting reports listed him as a safety stuck in a corner back's body but it's those corner back instincts that help him overcome any athletic deficiencies. Once his head catches up to the speed of the NFL he should still be able to break on passes very well and bait quarterbacks into making poor decisions.
Realistic Expectation for 2009: Playing well on special teams is a given but if Johnson wrestles the third safety spot from Aaron Francisco by mid season, it'll be a successful season in my mind. He's got the skills to be a player in this league, it's just a matter of handling the transition from Saturdays to Sundays. Luckily for him he'll face the best passing offense in the league every day during practice.
We're probably getting ahead of ourselves by placing the future starter label on a third round pick before training camp even opens but it just sounds like everyone thinks the Cardinals got tremendous value with this kid. What are your expectations of his rookie season? Would you be worried if he had to step in for Rolle at some point in the season?