The safety position is always interesting to follow in the draft. They can be vitally important to how some defenses are called, but they tend to not carry nearly the same athletic premium as other positions. Because of that, the draft stock of all but the very best safeties can be very difficult to anticipate.
Texas A&M safety Antonio Johnson is highly regarded among draft evaluators, and is generally considered one of the top safeties in the 2023 NFL Draft. But will he be exciting enough for teams to warrant a high draft choice?
He’s a smart, instinctive, and versatile safety, and the New York Giants could be an interesting fit for him if the value is right.
Prospect: Antonio Johnson (27)
Games Watched: vs. Arkansas (2021), vs. Appalachian State (2022), vs. Miami (2022), vs. Arkansas (2022)
Red Flags: Undisclosed injury (2022)
Games Played: 23
Tackles for a loss: 14.0
Forced fumbles: 4
Passes defensed: 7
Games Played: 9
Tackles for a loss: 5.0
Forced fumbles: 3
Passes defensed: 1
Best: Instincts, football IQ, versatility, zone coverage, length
Worst: Long speed, range, agility
Projection: A primary nickel or STAR in a sub-package heavy defense.
Texas A&M’s Antonio Johnson is a good sized, versatile, smart, and instinctive safety prospect.
Johnson is a long safety at 6-foot 1 ⅞ inches with 32-inch arms, and adequate bulk at 198 pounds. He played all over the Aggie’s defense, lining up as a deep safety (both in deep middle and deep half coverage shells), as a slot defender, as a box safety, and even as a pseudo-linebacker. He primarily played over the slot earlier in his career, but was moved to more deep coverage shells in 2022 as a result of roster changes.
Johnson has a high football IQ and is a very instinctive defender as well. In addition to the broad range of roles he plays in TAMU’s defense, he’s an active communicator before and after the snap. Johnson diagnoses the play very quickly and is seldom fooled by offensive misdirection. He does a great job of keeping his eyes in the backfield when in zone coverage has a very quick downhill trigger. There are instances where he begins breaking on the ball almost before the quarterback commits to the throw, suggesting very good instincts.
He typically takes smart angles to the ball and is a reliable tackler in the open field to bring down the ball carrier without allowing many yards after contact. He’s willing to take on blockers in run defense and while he lacks the mass of some box safeties, he’s generally effective as a run defender.Johnson also has experience as a blitzer and generally times his rushes well with a solid burst into the backfield.
Johnson is at his best in shallow zone coverages and his athletic limitations show up the further he gets from the line of scrimmage and when he needs to match up with skill position players in man coverage.
Johnson can be outrun in the open field by receivers and running backs, and his lack of long speed can make him late to the play. He generally takes smart angles to the ball carrier, but his limited range can make even mildly aggressive angles to the ball challenging over a distance. Johnson can also struggle to stay with receivers in man coverage as a slot corner.
Overall Grade: 7.3
Antonio Johnson projects best as a primary nickel safety or STAR (safety/linebacker hybrid) for a multiple defense.
Johnson played a wide variety of roles for the TAMU defense and has the versatility to do the same for an NFL defense. He has some athletic limitations which show up depending on his alignment and match-up, and defenses will need to take those into account.
He probably shouldn’t be asked to man the deep middle of the field as a free safety in a Cover 1 defense. He has good initial quickness, but lacks long speed which shows up when he has to run further than about 10 yards. Likewise, Johnson has solid change of direction skills, but lacks truly fluid hips. So while he can match up with tight ends or bigger running backs in coverage, he can struggle to stay in phase with wide receivers or quicker backs.
All of that said, Johnson is a very smart player who should be able to grasp a sophisticated defense quickly. He also shows great instincts and processing speed, and his ability to anticipate the play helps disguise some of his athletic limitations.
Johnson might slide some due to being a (relatively) limited athlete at a position that doesn’t have much value for teams. However, that could mean that a team will get a solid player who can help their defense at a good value.