THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – On his way to a tour of SoFi Stadium, a billboard with his picture promoting the Rams' upcoming season caught safety John Johnson III's attention.
As Los Angeles gets closer to facing the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football, it is one of a handful of indications of his earned leadership role on L.A.'s defense entering his fourth season.
"I've always felt like the safety should be like the quarterback of the defense," Johnson said during a video conference last week. "Oftentimes it's the linebacker, the middle linebacker, but just for me personally, you know, high school, college, I was always the leader in the back of the defense. So, like you said being with Coach (Brandon) Staley, him putting that emphasis on the safety play and us being in the center is huge. And I love it. You know, my personality, I feel like it's a perfect fit."
Johnson is no stranger to being a leader.
He was named team captain of his high school's basketball team as a sophomore and football team as a senior. He also earned the latter distinction during his senior season at Boston College. Just recently, he was named a Rams team captain for the first time.
Besides his own achievements, Johnson also has the mentorship of former Rams safety Eric Weddle to thank for putting him in the best possible position to be a leader.
Johnson's biggest takeaway from Weddle: "Being a reflection of the coordinator" and working smarter, not harder.
"Everybody's going to give a hundred percent effort, but if you could find ways to simplify the game, it makes you play a lot faster," Johnson said. "I think that's one thing that Eric gave to me, is just certain techniques that I can see something and react faster than I would in the past. Just like little tips and stuff, releasing stems and routes and formations that he gave me just to play faster and I can relay it to the whole defense as well."
A season-ending shoulder injury against the 49ers in Week 6 put a disappointing stop to what might have ended up being a promising third season. The year before, he led the team interceptions (four) and finished second in total tackles (119), including the pick in the NFC Championship which set up the game-winning Greg Zuerlein field goal to send the Rams to the Super Bowl.
Working with Johnson for the first time, Staley recognizes how talented he is and how impactful it will be to have him "quarterbacking" the secondary alongside cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
"I've been through (it) with two All-Pro safeties the last three years, two other safeties in Justin Simmons and Eddie Jackson, and Adrian Amos and Kareem Jackson, that's four safeties that are as good as you're going to get," Staley said during an Aug. 15 video conference. "And John Johnson is this guy that, he's fantastic."
In a secondary with many young players, Johnson will be counted on to guide them as one of the most experienced voices in the group. His teammates gladly embrace it.
"I love his energy and his passion for the game as well," second-year safety Taylor Rapp said during a Sept. 2 video conference. "I think he's really grown into his role incredibly well. He's really taken on that leadership role and kind of taken helm of the defensive room as well. I love the guy. I can't wait to be out there September 13 with him."