SANTA CLARA -- Since October of 2019, the 49ers have signed cornerback Dontae Johnson six different times. They also have added him to the practice squad or activated him to the 53-man roster three times and have cut, waived or released him four times in that span.
That begs the question, at 30 years old while playing musical chairs with his NFL future, how does Johnson keep winding back up on the 49ers? To them, his value is unseen. It goes well beyond the box score, and it all starts with one word: Leadership.
"Dontae, one thing Dontae does is Dontae is a very accountable teammate," 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said. "Dontae is a guy you can depend on to handle his job the right way, to be a pro on and off the field. That's what has made Dontae stick around in the NFL so long.
"He's a true vet, a true pro, a guy who knows where to be, knows how to do his job and he also has that ability where he's not selfish from that standpoint to where he's always teaching the younger guys as well. And so that's what keeps Dontae around."
Ryans also spoke highly about Johnson's ability to fill multiple roles for the 49ers whenever his number is called. He has appeared in all 12 of their games this season, starting two. The eight-year pro has 19 tackles, one pass defensed, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries while playing all over the secondary.
He can jump in and play either side as a cornerback, go inside as a nickel back or bounce back as a safety if needed. Johnson also has played a large percentage of the 49ers' special teams snaps this season.
"When you get a guy who is as versatile and as smart as Dontae, you'll stick around in this league," Ryans said. "The more you can do, you'll stick around. And that's where Dontae has really earned himself the right to be in this league for as long as he has, just because of him being as versatile and as smart as he is.”
Johnson has seen it all in his eight years as an NFL player. His journey began with the 49ers as a fourth-round draft pick in 2014. He spent his first four seasons with San Francisco before spending time with the Seattle Seahawks, Buffalo Bills, Arizona Cardinals, Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers in one capacity or another until he made his way back to his first home.
Ryans was a second-round pick in the 2006 draft by the Houston Texans. He played his first six seasons in Houston, earning two trips to the Pro Bowl. Ryans then played his final four years with the Philadelphia Eagles.
The now-49ers defensive coordinator spoke on how when he entered the league, veterans taught him everything about the NFL, from watching film to how to study and play his position the right way to how to act off the field. As he aged, he then imparted that knowledge onto younger linebackers like Jordan Hicks, Brian Cushing and Mychal Kendricks, who spent some time with the 49ers earlier this season.
That's exactly what Johnson has done with rookie cornerbacks Ambry Thomas and Deommodore Lenoir, which is what makes him so valuable to the 49ers, beyond just his production on the field.
"That's where you see guys like Dontae Johnson, that's why he's able to do what he does," Ryans said. "He’s just paying it forward and somebody probably taught him the same way.”
Cornerback Emmanuel Moseley is expected to miss multiple games with a high ankle sprain. Johnson, Lenoir and even Thomas will have to step their games up against a potent Cincinnati Bengals offense this Sunday that features quarterback Joe Burrow and his many weapons in receivers Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and more.
All week at practice, Lenoir, Thomas and the rest of the group have impressed Ryans and the 49ers' coaching staff with their intent and preparation. They have Johnson as a big reason why, and now we'll see how up to the challenge the rookies and the veterans are in a crucial game for playoff contention.