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Senior Bowl 2019: Cornerback Isaiah Johnson has the arm length

Arizona v Houston Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

Isaiah Johnson looks like a Seattle Seahawk. That was abundantly clear at the 2019 Reese’s Senior Bowl. First there were the weigh ins where, after a blurry 7am start, Johnson measured in at 6 ft 2, 207 lbs with 33 and 5/8th inch arms. The arm length was most intriguing.

In the John Schneider-Pete Carroll era, the Seahawks have only taken cornerbacks with arms measuring in at 32 inches or above. For corners, length matters. That’s particularly true in Carroll’s defensive system, where the schemer relies on press coverage to disrupt receivers at the line of scrimmage and covets ball-hawking.

Three other players met Seattle’s arm length threshold, with most struggling to show consistent technique or ability:

The talked-up guy in the group was the fabulously named Rock Ya-Sin. What separated Johnson from Ya-Sin was: 1. 6ft 2 versus 5ft 11 and 2. Ya-Sin’s technique. In each practice, Ya-Sin opted to mirror receivers in press alignment. He struggled against the better receivers, seeing the line of scrimmage get re-set with no contact made. This dancing style at the line of scrimmage works fine for some corners, but it’s not what the Seahawks coach.

Seattle doesn’t want their cornerbacks to be the receiver’s “puppet on a string”. They take the fight to the receiver with a step kick technique. The defender steps at the line of scrimmage, waiting for the receiver to finish his deceptive dancing. They then get hands on the receiver in their jam and kick backwards once the receiver has declared downfield. The toughest part is staying patient at the line of scrimmage for the receiver to make his genuine move. Johnson utilized this well.

Johnson’s roughest showing by far was Day 2, where he decided to backpedal and try the mirror technique.

But when using the step-kick, he physically dominated receivers at the line of scrimmage and looked far more comfortable.

After the final practice, I talked with the Houston prospect about his variations in technique:

Matty F. Brown: “Day 1, it seemed like you were using different technique to Day 2. It seemed like you were trying to mirror guys more Day 2. Was that a conscious thing?”
Isaiah Johnson: “Yeah, that’s what I was trying to practice. I was trying to show different technique.”
MB: “So, I saw in press that you were step-kicking, and then I saw you dancing a bit more?”
IJ: “Yes sir.”
MB: “Do you have a preferred technique?”
IJ: “For me personally I like to do a step kick. I was just trying something different. I went back to the step kick today, we went into the redzone. But yeah, I just tried to change it up and show people different looks with me in press.”
MB: “Well yeah, I think you looked really good doing the step kick. Do you like being in press coverage more than being in off?”
IJ: “I personally like all the coverages…whatever the coaches prefer I can do that.”
MB: “Do you prefer playing zone or man, or do you like everything like you said?”
IJ: “I like a good variety of everything to be honest with you dawg. I really just like playing football. Whatever the coaches like to call. As long as we work that and we practice the technique; I’m good.”
MB: “And, finally, how does you length help you?”
IJ: “My length helps me a lot because it makes it really stressful on the receivers and a lot of people in general because they’re not used to that. You see a DB that’s as tall as the wide receiver they get a little bit nervous. It helps me at the point of attack at the ball and it helps me get hands on them quicker.”

It was interesting talking with Johnson. Discovering that he prefers the way the Seahawks play their corners made sense. Johnson played super physically, sparking a “get the F@*% off me” yell from a frustrated receiver. In truth, he was overly grabby and holding on to guys too much. But it’s far easier to tone physicality down than it is to dial it up.

Johnson’s decision to show different things was smart for his job prospects, but what makes him such an attractive proposition in Seattle is the fact he excels at the step-kick. He did in college, he did in Mobile and he would in the Pacific Northwest. He’s a player that screams SEAHAWKS and is a baller to look out for as draft talk ramps up.

His ball skills aren’t just aided by his long arms; Johnson was recruited as a receiver. He only made the switch to cornerback in his junior year. Like Richard Sherman, Johnson clearly benefits from his two years of experience on offense. Carroll would salivate over another conversion.

The days of getting Johnson’s type in the 5th round could be long gone, but his limited experience makes him specific schematic fit that is raw in certain areas. For instance, the step-kick would benefit from some of Carroll’s coaching as Johnson sometimes takes too late a step, too bouncy of a step and/or too wide a step.

The idea of the step is to sync up the timing and aid the patience. It must be done quickly, without a hop and within the frame. Johnson’s patchy step limited his ability to react on time and locked him up, seeing him get beat at the snap.

He also bit outside on the talented Jakobi Meyers’ jab step inside in the game. Fortunately for Johnson, the awful Trace McSorely missed the wide-open touchdown on 3rd and 2.

Currently, early day 3 range feels about right for Johnson. He only became a starter in 2018, where he started in 10 of 11 games. Testing will have a large say on where he goes. As long as Johnson doesn’t run in the 4.7s, and he won’t, then his very good long speed is somewhat irrelevant as jamming with step-kick at the line of scrimmage slows receivers massively.

His hips, change of direction skills, and general movement ability looked impressively fluid too.

We know the Seahawks are going to trade down multiple times from their current position at 21 in the first round. Picking up a 4th round pick in such a situation and spending it on Johnson would make lots of sense, particularly with how Shaquill Griffin struggled as the season progressed. Always compete.