Nothing has changed regarding the makeup and skills that Matt Johnson brings that had many commentators raving about his potential out of college.
One Cool Customer wrote a piece here called "Cowboys Rookie Safety Will Turn Heads in the NFL." He makes a lot of good points, talking about Johnson's "Prototypical Athleticism" where Johnson comes in higher than most safeties last year in 40-yard dash, short shuttle, and 3-cone drill.
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.
OCC goes on to praise Johnson's "Track Record of Production." He used the DB Production Ratio -- INTs + FFs + and pass breakups/games played to make his point.
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.
His third point is that Johnson has "RKG Stuff." In this area, he quotes Jason Garrett.
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 .
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.
OCC wasn't the only guy singing Johnson's praises. Bob Sturm, who is a very critical observer of the Cowboys, and who does his analysis based on detailed film study, also liked what he saw. In his post: "Matt Johnson has the potential to be a real find" he lays out a strong case for Johnson.
In a brief summary, I think he is a fantastic safety in college, with all of the characteristics that one looks for when trying to find a playmaker at that spot. He fell down the board to #135 for any number of reasons. He tore his bicep in his senior season and missed considerable time. He went to school at Eastern Washington where he was part of the 1-AA/FCS National Championship team in 2010. But, that level of competition is not what the player will face in the NFC East. These and other characteristics have put him in a spot where he will have to prove his worth. But, I think he is up for this challenge.
If you spend some time watching him on the eye-stressing red turf at Eastern Washington, he really jumps off the screen as a playmaker. His most recognizable attribute is the way he is always rolling downhill from his deep spot in the secondary to the ball. He is a ball hawk who arrives with intentions of ending the play on the spot. He has supreme confidence in knowing where he is going and this causes a very speedy key-and-diagnose process. Surely, this is something that might be apparent only when a player becomes a senior in college and we must wait and see if he still plays with that swagger in a whole new environment where things are happening at a different speed with a different level of scrutiny if things go wrong, but his confidence and knowledge of what his defense was doing was a very impressive trait.
Then, with fluid athletic skills he seems to find the ball with great ease. Again, this must be qualified with the admission that he might have been one of the best athletes on the field in most of his games in college and that could change greatly in the big leagues, but he makes plays, blows up runs, and finds the ball. In college, his play in the secondary led to an amazing number of career interceptions (17), but I would not say that makes him a free safety. In fact, he does have some deep angle issues that might be evident at the next level where he allows the occasional route to get him turned around. But, his skills as a strong safety in the box are actually what I like most. And when today's NFL requires a safety that can play both spots so that a coordinator can interchange concepts and roles from snap to snap, Johnson seems like a real strong candidate for this with position versatility.
None of these optimistic forecasts have been proven wrong to this point. Rather, because Johnson missed OTA's last year (due to school requirements) and then pulled his hamstring in a rushed attempt to get back last year, he was never able to show any of his abilities last season.
This season, he was able to practice during OTAs and training camp, even though he had some additional health issues. It was enough, however, for Mo Claiborne to gush:
"His ball skills are incredible, when the ball is in the air he knows how to go up and play it."
Johnson's problem to this point has been staying healthy. Is that reason enough to give up on him? I think NO.
If you look at Dallas's safety position, we have 31-year-old Will Allen on a 1-year contract. He's a stop-gap player designed to help Dallas evaluate who can best take his job in 2014.
Now, these safeties need to be somewhat interchangeable, but it's pretty clear that Church is the "in the box" guy and Allen is the "over the top" guy, at least in single high looks.
Who do we have that could replace Will Allen next year? JJ Wilcox, Matt Johnson, and newcomer Jeff Heath.
If you look at the combine totals, you will see that Matt Johnson scored the best of these three guys, at least in the 3 measurements OCC tracked. On the field, we all like JJ Wilcox, because he looks like a hitter, and he seemed to bounce back from a bad pre-season game with a better one the following week. People also like what they've been seeing from Jeff Heath, who separated the ball from a Bengal last game with a nice tackle.
Have we really seen enough to anoint Wilcox and Heath, and cut Johnson from this competition? Both Wilcox and Heath are in their first years. We've seen a little of them in the pre-season, but nothing in any real games. And because Johnson has been hurt, we haven't had much opportunity to evaluate them side-by-side. I know I read comments that thought Johnson looked the best in the Miami game up until the point where he was hurt. But, either way, we didn't really have enough to make a full evaluation.
Here's my bottom line: Dallas needs to develop a starting safety, and have someone capable of subbing for Barry Church. Why not let 3 guys fight for this, rather than cutting one prematurely? There's no chance that Matt Johnson (or Jeff Heath for that matter) would make it to the practice squad. But there's also no way of knowing yet which of these three guys is going to be the best safety in the long run. Wilcox may be able to develop into the starter alongside Church, but he also seems more suited to the "in the box" role, whereas Johnson, with the 17 picks he had in college, might really be the better "over the top" guy.
Dallas has at least 5 safety slots, and would not be that difficult to carry a 6th safety if you still want McCray or Frampton as a special teams guy.
We've had endless debates on here about whether Dallas should use a slot on Alex Tanney, who has no chance of contributing to the Cowboys this year, and who's career ceiling is likely to be NFL backup. Wouldn't it be a much better investment of a roster slot to keep the guy you drafted to become a starting safety for the next 5 years?