Cowboys Rookie Safety Matt Johnson Will Turn Heads In The NFL

Matt Johnson came from a small school, but is it the start of something big?

Matt who?

The Cowboys certainly pulled a stunner when they drafted safety Matt Johnson out of Eastern Washington in the fourth round, and had many fans and draft analysts scrambling to find some information on the guy.


See also: Dallas Cowboys Draft Safety Matt Johnson In The Fourth Round

We've already reviewed what some scouts had to say about Johnson, today we're going to take a look at Matt Johnson from a different angle by checking out his athletic ability, his college production and his intangibles to understand why the Cowboys were so high on him.

Prototypical Athleticism

Last year Gil Brandt of NFL.com laid out the target measurables for safeties in each Combine drill. This is what NFL teams are looking for at the position:

Drill Significance Safeties Johnson
40-yard dash Speed over distance 4.60 4.54
225-pound bench press reps Upper body strength 18 18
Vertical jump Explosiveness, leg strength 36 38.5
Broad jump (in inches)
Explosiveness, leg strength 120 121
20-yard shuttle Flexibility, burst, balance 4.05 4.07
3-cone drill Agility, change of direction 7.10 6.84

So now we know that Johnson has the prototypical athleticism that all NFL teams are looking for in their safeties. But this still leaves us without a clear understanding of which drills are the important ones. As our good fortune would have it, the guys at Ourlads.com did some research a while back on the physical attributes that result in NFL success. Here's what they found for safeties. Three quarters of safety prospects who exceeded peer average in the 40-yard dash started in the NFL. The next most important drills for safeties are the short shuttle and three cone drill. Here's how Johnson compares:

Drill 40-YARD DASH SHORT SHUTTLE THREE CONE
EPA Avg. Success Avg. Success Avg. Success
4.58 74% 4.25 46% 7.04 46%
Johnson 4.54 4.07 6.84

The success percentage in the table indicates the percentage of prospects who became NFL starters out of all prospects who met or exceeded the peer average of the specific drill. In other words, 74% of safeties who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.58 seconds or less became starters in the NFL.

Matt Johnson exceeds peer average in all three critical drills. From a purely athletic point of view, there is no reason to doubt that Matt Johnson could eventually become a starter in the NFL. Of the slightly more than 20 safety prospects, only one other prospect EPA'd in all three drills: FS Trenton Robinson out of Michigan State, who ended up with the 49ers. Harrison Smith, the 29th pick in the draft, only EPA'd in two drills, Mark Barron did not complete the short shuttle or three cone at his Pro Day.

Track Record of Production

In a recent post about Finding Playmaking Defensive Backs, we used a simple formula called the DB Production Ratio to assess the college production of defensive backs. The formula adds up interceptions, pass breakups and forced fumbles and divides them by the number of college games played. A score of 1.0 tells you that a player recorded one defensive splash play per game. The higher the number, the better of course. Here's the formula:

DB PRODUCTION RATIO = (INTERCEPTIONS + PASS BREAKUPS + FORCED FUMBLES) / NUMBER OF GAMES PLAYED

Here are Johnson's career numbers:

Matt Johnson College Career Stats
Year Games Tackles INTs PBUs FFs
2008 11 83 4 1 0
2009 12 101 6 4 2
2010 15 105 5 8 2
2011 7 52 2 0 2
TOTAL 45 341 17 13 6

Excluding Johnson's freshman season, Johnson has a DB Production Ratio of 0.91. Compared to his peers from this year's draft class, that is the third best value for a safety, right behind Mark Barron with 0.95 and Markelle Martin with 1.11.

RKG stuff

Johnson's first NFL jersey as a child was the No. 22 of Cowboy running back Emmitt Smith, and his dad is a Cowboys fan. He was the 2011 defensive co-captain at EWU, and was a 2010 All-American and 2011 pre-season All-American.

PFW described him as a "Character player with a professional approach who has an intangible makeup and athletic skill set to make a roster and contribute on special teams."

The rest I'll leave to Jason Garrett:

I think if you look at our list of the seven players we drafted, we really feel good about the kind of people they are.

Matt Johnson is a safety from Eastern Washington. He’s a guy that we feel can play on the back end and also be a safety who drops down. He’s a good run defender as well, made a number of plays on the ball, I think fifteen career interceptions [17].

The safety position is a little bit tricky. Sometimes you have guys who are good pass defenders, sometimes you have guys who are good run defenders. We feel like he’s demonstrated that he can do both.

We had him in here for one of our 30 visits, really liked the kind of person he is. He can be a special teams contributor, but is also going to be a position player for us.

With Matt Johnson, the Cowboys drafted a player who has superior athleticism for the position, has a proven track record of production (albeit at a small school) and has all the intangibles required to make the most out the first two. Matt Johnson will turn heads in the NFL.

In hindsight, and with the benefit of a close look at Johnson's numbers, it's easy to see why the Cowboys were so high on the guy, even though he was not on the radar of most fans.

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