Isaiah Johnson doesn’t have much experience playing cornerback. The former receiver converted relatively late in his college career, switching to defense before his junior season. Athleticism and instincts helped him transition quickly and perform well, but he is still learning the position’s nuances with each experience in the secondary. The Raiders see great potential in this cornerback prospect, which is why they nabbed him despite already having a cornerback in the draft class.
Let’s analyze what to expect from this talented prospect during his rookie season:
Draft slot: No. 129 overall (Fourth round)
Weight: 208 pounds
Johnson has ideal size and length to play cornerback in the Raiders' system. He’s a big guy with long arms, and has the speed required to keep up with receivers downfield. He proved instinctive with his ball skills, compiling four interceptions and 13 pass breakups during his two seasons at cornerback.
Johnson also comes armed with a receiver’s mentality after playing offense for so long, meaning he understands route concepts and anticipates where his man will go in the pattern. That also helps him defend what’s coming, though there’s still a lack of consistency playing the position that must be erased. He also must continue to refine his technique, which remains relatively raw and can get him in trouble at times.
Training camp proving ground
Johnson remains a work in progress, a point made clear during offseason program work. He got beat decisively a few times during sessions open to the press, though Raiders receivers Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams can perplex even the most established of cornerbacks. Coaches will work closely with him as he develops as a cornerback while facing NFL competition. That could set up a tough stretch, but he could get better fast if he applies the teaching well and leans on his great athleticism.
Johnson progresses quickly, his talent proves too valuable to ignore and he leapfrogs several to earn a spot in the rotation. It’s unrealistic to expect him to start as a rookie, especially with Gareon Conley a lock for one cornerback position and Daryl Worley in line for the other outside slot. Nevin Lawson and second-rounder Trayvon Mullen also have a better shot, but there’s nothing to prevent a rapid rise if he puts it all together quickly. He could end up being the first or second reserve off the bench at outside cornerback if things go well.
Johnson’s also a real asset on special teams. He was an excellent gunner in punt coverage, a spot where the Raiders need immediate help. Anchoring a gunner spot and adding him to kickoff coverage would really help the kicking game.
Johnson struggles to find footing of any kind in the preseason, gets beat regularly and ends up on the roster bubble with a possible practice squad demotion. That would be a bad beat for both player and team, though it certainly shouldn’t be expected from such an athletic talent.
Johnson needs practice time and consistent field work to improve, and a preseason injury could really cut into that. His regular-season practice reps could dip, so this summer is vital to his long-term growth. Missing those opportunities could slow his development, which the Raiders hope to expedite.
Pencil Johnson in as an important special teams contributor. That’s the type of immediate impact fair to expect from those drafted in the middle-or-later rounds. He takes pride in special teams work, and should strengthen coverage downfield.
The Raiders have a deep cornerback corps, so Johnson ending up the fourth or fifth cornerback seems likely considering those above him. He’ll continue to work on the mental side of his game, so he’s ready if called upon for regular snaps in a game or more this season.