CLEVELAND — As free agency commenced Monday afternoon, the Cleveland Browns wasted no time bolstering the secondary, signing former Rams safety John Johnson. The third-highest graded safety in the league by Pro Football Focus (PFF), Johnson had other teams interested in him—but he chose Cleveland.
Why he chose Cleveland
Steve Rapp, now the assistant head coach and offensive coordinator at Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High School, coached Johnson at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Maryland. The two became close over the years. They still talk every week.
Rapp spoke to Johnson after the news broke of his decision to sign with the Browns. He said that the decision was made based on where the safety sees this Browns organization heading and his belief they can compete for the Lombardi Trophy year in and year out.
“He was excited. Basically, he was saying that he was excited about the organization as a whole and that it was heading in the right direction,” Rapp said. “Being in a productive situation was huge for him. I think he wants to be in a situation where you're competing for championships because he's been to the Super Bowl, and he's been on a team that's been able to be productive. I think that he feels the same type of way about Cleveland, which is a big deal.”
Rapp said that he approves of the decision, praising the Browns’ development and commending the organization for making the right decisions within their organization.
“I think it's a great spot. And I think Cleveland is super up-and-coming,” Rapp said. “I think they got a great young GM. I think they found the right head coach. The second half of the year last year, when he decided just to run the football and play defense, that really worked out for them. I just think he's coming into a great situation.”
Coach and player
Rapp’s approval is bound to hold some weight with Johnson. The two go way back, to Johnson’s eighth grade year, to be exact.
Johnson was in middle school when he met Rapp and left a lasting impression on the coach.
“From the day I met him, I just knew he was different,” Rapp said. “He, mentally, was always above the regular everyday type deal. There's just multiple different things you can say about him and how he believes in himself.”
Rapp shared a story about Johnson and how he was so dedicated to improving himself on the football field in high school that he stepped away from varsity basketball his junior year to give his all to his development because he saw something special in himself.
“He didn't play [basketball] his junior year because he decided that he was going to just train his whole junior year, lift weights, get bigger, get stronger, get faster,” Rapp said. “You're seeing these things happen, almost like he knew this was going to happen before it happened.”
Johnson’s preparation over the years paid off, committing to Boston College, going on to impress during the week of the Senior Bowl and at the NFL combine in 2017, getting drafted in the third round that year by the Rams.
What the Rams had
In Los Angeles, Johnson made a name for himself on the field and off the field. He was the signal-caller for the Rams defense last season, which finished ranked No. 1. Rapp thinks Browns fans are going to love him from the start.
“He's going to show up for work every day. He'll bring his lunch pail and his hard hat, and he's going to rock and roll. He'll do it by example. He'll talk about a little bit, too, but he'll lead by example,” Rapp said. “He’s a super exciting player to watch because you see that he's always around the ball. He brings a passion that he's going to compete his ass off, and I think that type of stuff is very infectious...You kind of get it going, and everybody rolls behind it. And I think that's kind of who he is.”
What the Browns got
Joining safeties Ronnie Harrison and Grant Delpit, Johnson may be able to provide the Browns and defensive coordinator Joe Woods with the ability to really find and develop the defensive scheme they’ve been aiming for—something Rapp is sure Johnson will be able to do with his skill and versatility.
“You're getting a leader, a natural leader. You're getting a coach on the field. You're getting a guy that can change the back end of a complete defense, a guy that can play any position in that back end. He can play the nickel. He can play the corner. He can play strong safety. He can play free safety. He can play in the box. He can play in the middle of the field,” Rapp said. “You won't meet somebody that's got a better heart or a better person, and you won't meet a defensive player that's going to spend more time mentally getting it right and mentally being prepared.”
For Browns fans wondering who they’re getting in Johnson, well, Rapp said that’s simple—you’re getting someone who fully embodies the mentality of the Dawg Pound.
“He fits everything that the Dawg Pound stands for,” Rapp said. “Ultimately, we're hoping that he can supply the path for what it's like to be in the Super Bowl, to get to the Super Bowl, to play in the Super Bowl...You're not going to get anybody as mentally better or mentally more prepared. A natural leader, a day-one guy. And he'll always trust the process and then figure out how to get it to the end.”
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.