Talking back: Browns' Johnson leads with words, actions

·4 min read

BEREA, Ohio (AP) — Finding Browns safety John Johnson III on the field is easy.

Just listen.

“I like talking,” Johnson said with a big smile following practice this week. “I don’t even wear a mouthpiece because I like talking so much.”

One of the many new faces on Cleveland's revamped defense, the loquacious Johnson was signed by the Browns in March to a three-year, $33.7 million free agent contract to bolster a major weak spot from last season.

Johnson, who played the last four years with the Los Angeles Rams, had more lucrative offers elsewhere but he chose to join an improved and talented Cleveland team with lofty goals in 2021.

The Browns' investment is already paying off as it's taken little time for the affable 25-year-old Johnson to establish himself as a leader — whether on the field or breaking down film with his position group.

Johnson's a presence — always and everywhere.

“He's not shy,” said coach Kevin Stefanski.

That's what the Browns found out before signing Johnson, who wore the in-helmet radio to communicate with Rams' coaches during games. He won't start out doing that in Cleveland, but he has other important duties.

One is to ensure the secondary is lined up properly before the snap. Even during practice Johnson can be heard barking out assignments to his teammates, something he first got comfortable doing at Boston College.

“There are some times I am locked in and I do not see motion and stuff like that, and he will yell and get the call to me,” said rookie cornerback Greg Newsome II. "It is definitely important to have him out there.”

Johnson started out as a cornerback in college, and relished the responsibility of making sure his teammates were always where they needed to be. Once he moved to safety, that didn't change.

Stefanski said having a player good at “communicating and overcommunicating” is vital for a defense.

“He does a nice job of that,” Stefanski said. "He's like having another coach out there on the field.”

Johnson's not only a natural leader, but he also seems to be natural talker. He's had the gift of gab since he was child.

“Any home video, I’m grabbing the camera, the center of attention trying to be seen,” he said. "So I think it’s been long before football.”

From his safety spot, Johnson can read the entire field — like a defensive quarterback. That vantage point allows him to see formations and alert his teammates where offensive players are lined up or as they go in motion.

Yelling and waving like an orchestra conductor, Johnson get the Browns in tune.

“The safety is another Mike (middle) linebacker of the defense,” said Newsome, a first-round pick and likely starter. "He's another signal caller and does all of the important things out there to make sure we are in the right thing.

“To have a guy like that, a vocal leader, out there is amazing. He is like that in meeting rooms and everything — a big, playful and joyful guy.”

Johnson didn't waste a minute integrating himself into the Browns' culture.

Shortly after signing and receiving his team issued tablet, Johnson watched Cleveland's gut-wrenching playoff loss to Kanas City, a game decided by two positive plays by the Chiefs in the closing minutes.

Johnson described the back-breaking plays — a scramble by Chiefs backup QB Chad Henne on third down and Tyreek Hill's game-sealing catch on fourth down — as if he experienced them personally.

With the Browns opening the season at Arrowhead Stadium on Sept. 12, Johnson senses his teammates want revenge.

“It’s a vindictive vibe,” he said. “We definitely want to get back at those guys. But I always want to win the opener regardless of who it is, so that’s what we got to go out there and do.”

NOTES: CB Denzel Ward (soreness) and DE Takk McKinley (personal absence) both practiced for the first time in weeks, another positive for Cleveland's defense, which has slowed by injuries this summer. ... Stefanski is waiting until Friday to announce whether he'll play his starters in Sunday's exhibition finale in Atlanta. ... WR Odell Beckham Jr.'s status remains unclear and somewhat mysterious. Coming off knee surgery, he's been kept out of most team drills. Stefanski complimented Beckham for his hard work but wouldn't say if he'll be ready for the opener. ... With several linebackers nursing injures, the Browns signed Tegray Scales. He appeared in four games for the Steelers last season. Pittsburgh waived him on Aug. 14. ... The Browns claimed TE Kyle Markway off waivers from the Rams. To make roster space, DE Romeo McKnight was waived.

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Tom Withers, The Associated Press

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