N.C. State has recently had a trend of developing versatile defensive backs that translate well to play safety in the NFL. Earl Wolff and David Amerson did that last season and this year, Dontae Johnson has a similar profile. Johnson came in and contributed all four seasons for the Wolfpack. During that time, Johnson was able to play a couple different hybrid roles that switched him from playing a spur type role as a safety playing linebacker and then moving to a slot corner and safety position before ultimately making the move to corner this past year.
Projecting to the NFL, Johnson has a nice combination of length and power that could make him attractive at a few different positions depending on the team that picks him. He is a willing run defender who can take on and shed blocks. Johnson is able to contribute in coverage potentially at safety or corner depending on the scheme and needs to make more plays on the football but is still developing in that area. As a result, Johnson projects as a day three pick that could be a valuable asset at depth with the potential to develop into a starter.
Vitals & Build
Johnson is listed at 6’2” 195lbs with lean build. Johnson’s body control and hips are solid but not great. His short area pretty good but his long speed is relatively average. Johnson has good functional strength and seems to make the most of what he has, but he should be able to continue adding a good amount of muscle to his fill out his frame without losing any athleticism.
Johnson has shown he can be a good tackler. He typically does a good job of using his arms to wrap up and will drive through contact with the ability to make an impact tackle. When Johnson runs into problems, it is usually a matter of playing too high. In those situations, he is not working from a point of strength and can be beat with quickness.
Johnson is an active and willing run defender. He is almost always facing the play, so he is able to read and diagnose the play quickly, doing a good job of getting downhill and filling the appropriate gap.
Johnson is not afraid to take on and shed blocks. He is comfortable playing through contact, fighting through trash and working to get to the play. Johnson is willing to take the action to his opponent, get a punch on them, control the block and get to the ball carrier.
Johnson does run into some issues though and between experience and coaching, he should be able to fix them. There are times when he should work to just push the opposing receiver into the play to close down the running lanes from which they have to choose. The problem he will occasionally run into is that he will shed the wrong way and give the ball carrier a running lane. If he is able to press down on the block more, the option on which way to shed to make a play would be more apparent and make it easier on him. Nevertheless, since Johnson is willing to fight through blocks, he can be an asset in run defense from a few different positions.
Johnson has experience from a number of different spots and techniques. For the most part, the Wolfpack likes to have their corners play off and keep plays in front of them, preventing the big plays. This also means that their corners are playing almost exclusively facing the line of scrimmage. Johnson does a good job of not getting beat for the big play while being able to come down and try to make plays on the football or tackle short passing plays. The issue Johnson needs to improve is getting in on plays fast enough where he can make the play on the ball.
For the most part, he can do a good job of anticipating when opponents are trying to beat him deep, anticipating and flipping his hips to stay over the top and playing from behind. The times when he does have to run and chase, his length can help him make up ground.
Johnson also has experience playing up in press. His long arms and willingness to be physical give him the ability to potentially jam opponents at the line of scrimmage and control the play. They tend to roll coverage over so that Johnson has help behind him and can be aggressive without risking the big play.
In his junior year, Johnson also was used in the slot quite a bit and actually played a linebacker in their nickel sets in different situations. This is another area where he has experience getting contact on the opponent and being able to run with them in man coverage. His length makes up a good amount of ground, but when he ends up high, he can get out maneuvered by quicker receivers. Johnson still tended to play over the top and keep his body aimed at the line of scrimmage.
In addition to their off man coverage, the Wolfpack is able to switch to different coverage options that can allow Johnson to play zone over the top or underneath in the flat. He is accustomed to playing facing the play and attacking forward, so he is a good fit when it comes to zone. Johnson needs to just continue to get more experience and improve his range in coverage, but the way he has been coached, it should not be a difficult transition.
Johnson’s ball skills are pretty average. His length makes it so he should be able to make more plays on the ball than he does. Johnson also needs to get better at catching the ball when the opportunities are there. This was Johnson’s best year in terms of getting interceptions but this is an area that needs to continue to improve.
Blitzing off the Edge
Johnson has a good amount of experience coming on the blitz. He is willing tackler and hitter, so if the ball is front of him, he can make a play. In that sense, he can be used in a run blitz type scenario well. Johnson has more trouble when it comes to getting to the quarterback in passing situations, though he does have success from his time playing in the slot.
Johnson has experience on coverage teams in his time at N.C. State and was used as a returner early in his college career. His willingness to fight through contact and get to the ball carrier could make him a valuable asset on both kick and punt coverage units at the next level.
Johnson’s best fit may be as a free safety. The N.C. State program plays their corners in a way that allows him to make a nice transition to safety as their used to playing deep and coming up to make plays. As a result, he gives a team a safety with some man coverage ability.
Johnson could also be used to play corner in a Cover-2 system or likes to press. His physical style of play, willingness to help in the run and length could make him a viable option in either one.
Ultimately, Johnson may end up being drafted to play at depth for both corner and safety. He gives a team options in how they want to play nickel. Johnson is athletic enough where he can play in coverage, but physical enough where he still gives a team a presence against the run.
Johnson’s game could end up resembling James Ihedigbo of the Baltimore Ravens. Ihedigbo made the New York Jets roster as an undrafted free agent and it took a couple years before he came into his own as a safety. Now, he has found himself a home with the Ravens and has been an effective addition to their team. Johnson is unlikely to go undrafted and could make the transition quicker than Ihedigbo did, but he has to find himself a home in the NFL just like Ihedigbo did.
Dontae Johnson is a versatile player that is still developing and coming into his own as a player. He has been trained to play a number of different positions and his willingness to contribute as a run defender with the potential to become a more viable pass defender, Johnson could be a valuable sub package player with the potential to become a full time starter. Not only is Johnson still developing as a player but there appears to be a good mount of physical potential as well. Johnson projects as a day three pick but does have the potential to be a starter down the road.
Some of the film used in this scouting breakdown was provided by the good folks at draftbreakdown.com