Safety John Johnson III demonstrated value to the Rams defense in ways that did and did not show up on the stat sheet.
He was a reliable tackler in 2020, leading the team with 105 total. The lone interception he posted was a momentum changing-play that sparked a rally against the Bills in Week 3 that ultimately fell short. In his fourth season, he was trusted by former defensive coordinator Brandon Staley to wear the green dot on his helmet – as in, be the defensive signal-caller on the field, a role that 13-year NFL veteran Eric Weddle held in 2019.
All of this was accomplished while starting all 16 games in 2020 and bouncing back from a shoulder injury that limited him to six games in 2019.
For qualitative and quantitative reasons, one could make the argument the 2020 season was his best as a Ram. However, it also marked the final year of his rookie contract, which means that when the new league year begins – March 17 at 1 p.m. PT – he's scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent.
"Definitely emotional," Johnson said during his postgame video conference following the Rams' divisional round playoff loss to the Packers, when asked about his emotions heading into the offseason. "Just not knowing what's going to happen, not knowing if the guys you've been with for four years, you're going to be with them again. I guess we'll just go from there and see how it goes."
So what are the options for Johnson and the Rams?
One is for them to re-sign him to a long-term deal and retain a key piece to a defense which allowed the fewest total yards of offense and points per game in the NFL in 2020.
Los Angeles could also place the franchise tag on Johnson. There's precedent for this move, as L.A. used back-to-back franchise tags on cornerback Trumaine Johnson in 2016 and 2017, then placed the franchise tag on safety Lamarcus Joyner in 2018. However, the Rams haven't used the franchise tag since then, and Rams general manager Les Snead is cognizant of the potential negative impact that kind of short-term solution can have on a club's relationship with a player, and by extension, the locker room, as well as the impact on the salary cap.
If Johnson does not return, the Rams have some options within a deep safety room to fill his old spot.
Jordan Fuller, a 2020 sixth-round pick, earned a starting role right away and would be capable of holding Johnson's role. At 6-foot-2 and 203 pounds, he has a similar frame to the 6-foot, 209-pound Johnson.
Taylor Rapp (6-0, 208) will be entering his third season in 2021 and has starting experience (15 games through the first two seasons). While Nick Scott and 2020 third-round pick Terrell Burgess primarily played on special teams last year, they're capable of handling bigger roles on defense.