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9 players to watch in 2021: Jaylon Johnson

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The following is the ninth of nine stories featuring an ascending young Bears player heading into the 2021 season:

Jaylon Johnson, cornerback

How he was acquired

Johnson was chosen by the Bears in the second round of the 2020 draft (50th overall) out of Utah. A two-time first-team All-Pac 12 selection, he appeared in 38 games with 29 starts in three seasons and recorded 102 tackles, seven interceptions—returning two for touchdowns—21 pass breakups and one sack.

"Jaylon has just a really good combination of size, athleticism and awareness," general manager Ryan Pace said after drafting Johnson. "He's that physical, press corner that uses his size really well. He uses his strength to his advantage, to re-route receivers. Jaylon also is a really intelligent player, plays the game with excellent instincts and awareness. You can see it in the way he plays.

"And Jaylon's another guy with outstanding football makeup, really high football character. This is a guy who is driven and passionate. [There are] a lot of stories about his work ethic and just his professional approach to the game. So we feel real strong about the physical talent but also the makeup."

Johnson's physical traits combined with his intangibles made him a prospect the Bears coveted in the draft.

"You watch the player and you get excited about the player," Pace said. "And then our scouts come in in the fall meetings and they start talking about the makeup. [College scout] Dave Williams is going into who this person is, his leadership, passion for the game. There's story after story; the film preparation, football intelligence, strength coach loves him, you go on and on.

"Now you're watching the talented player on tape and what we want out of corners, and you combine it with the makeup and then we get into the interviews and the Combine, and we get really comfortable with the player and the complete package."

The Bears had the opportunity to trade down from No. 50, but taking Johnson was a no-brainer for Pace.

"We had some scenarios where we could have traded back out of that pick if we needed to," Pace said. "But when Jaylon was there, we turned the card in quickly because he's a guy we had graded high and it was a guy that fit our board as far as how the grades were coming off, and then it was a position of need for us as well. So we were really happy for that combination to take place."

Prior to 2020 season

Johnson had a breakout sophomore season at Utah in 2018, registering 41 tackles, four interceptions and four pass breakups. He followed by earning second-team All-America honors as a junior in 2019, recording 36 tackles, two interceptions and 11 pass breakups.

2020 season

A Day 1 starter, Johnson made an immediate impact as a rookie, no small feat given that all offseason practices and preseason games were cancelled due to COVID-19. The 6-foot, 193-pounder displayed excellent instincts and ball skills all season. He tied for ninth in the NFL with 15 pass breakups.

Johnson preserved a Week 1 win in Detroit by batting away a pass in the end zone as time expired. He also generated two interceptions by teammates Kyle Fuller and Tashaun Gipson Sr. with pass deflections.

Johnson impressed the Bears from the day he arrived at Halas Hall for training camp.

"I like the idea of having a short memory if you get beat," said coach Matt Nagy. "There's a couple times where he got beat and he came right back. It all started in training camp. His mentality, he took it to the season and I think he learned a lot.

"Understanding how to do little things like watch tape, there's not a lot of people that watch as much tape as Kyle Fuller, and I think it's been great for Jaylon to be able to witness behind the scenes how much tape Kyle sees. It just teaches you how to be a pro off the field."

Johnson missed the final three regular season games and the wild card playoff contest against the Saints with a shoulder injury. But the Bears are excited about his return and continued development in 2021.

"On the field, they're going to go after you being a rookie," Nagy said late in the season, "but he's really fought hard to get better and better, and I think his arrow is definitely up. It's unfortunate that he got hurt, but he's working hard to get back, and I think he has a really great attitude, and that's going to be the biggest thing."

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