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Buffalo Bills 2020 Vision: The Taron Johnson Story

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Hey Siri/Alexa/whatever artificial intelligence device will take over the world in ten years, play “Renegade” by Styx. Yes, that’s right Bills Mafia; your Buffalo Bills have beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers in back-to-back seasons and are now 10-3!

After a rough first half, everything clicked for the offense. Josh Allen spammed the Stefon Diggs button (as should always be done) to the tune of 10 receptions, 130 yards, and a touchdown. He will surpass at least one of Eric Moulds’ single-season records. (He only needs 201 yards in three games you say? Piece of cake.) Gabriel Davis found open space in the end zone again, making him only the third Bill since 1970 to score a receiving touchdown in three consecutive games. (Shout out to BF contributor Gage Azeez for his astute observation: “Death, taxes, and Gabriel Davis wide open for a touchdown”!) Also, Darryl Williams just increased his asking price in free agency by holding T.J. Watt to only two quarterback hits.

On defense, the secondary balled out, limiting Big Ben to a pedestrian 187 yards. Levi Wallace hauled in an interception that seemed intended to show off his long arms. (That was both his second pick of 2020 and his second against Pittsburgh since 2019.) Meanwhile, the run defense held the Steelers to only 47 yards. Taron Johnson also made the pivotal play of the game, jumping JuJu “Tiny Dancer” Smith-Schuster’s route (without holding him too close) and taking it TO DA HOUSE.

Speaking of Johnson, he has been much maligned by many Bills fans (including us BF contributors) this year for constantly being burnt in coverage. Was it warranted? Yes, but, as with A.J. Klein, he has gotten better. Since he made the biggest play of the game, I think he deserves the “2020 Vision” treatment. So, let us examine his road to that pick-six, which stretches far longer than those 51 yards.

Growing Up in Sacramento

Family & Football

I remember Taron at three years old. All the little kids were out there racing and running around… they were faster than him. But at three years old he was out there racing these kids and was determined to beat everybody he could. And you could just see the drive; you could just see the talent that he had even at three years old.

Taron’s father, Baron Johnson, on his son’s competitive drive. (Courtesy of Joe Buscaglia)

Taron Johnson was born on July 27, 1996, to Baron and Trina Johnson. You could almost say he was destined to be an athlete as his mother, grandfather, uncles, aunt, and older sister all played at least one sport. (His sister, Treana, would go on to earn All-American honors in track and field at BYU. Like most younger siblings, Taron has been chasing her his entire life.) Trina, a former cheerleader, would coach her former squad and introduce the then six-year-old Taron to the gridiron.

Unfortunately, she would not get to see the player her son would become, as she would lose her battle with breast cancer in 2004. She was 38 years old. Treana and Taron were blindsided by her diagnosis and passing. (They only found out after their grandmother, Trina’s mother, visited from Seattle.) Taron would go on to dedicate himself, and his playing career, to the woman who first introduced him to the game of football.

Sheldon High School

In high school, Johnson played both wide receiver and cornerback. In three years on the varsity team, he tallied 82 offensive touches for 1,558 yards and 17 touchdowns as well as 161 tackles (12.5 for loss), seven passes defensed, five interceptions, three sacks, a forced fumble, and a blocked field goal. (He led his team with 1,148 receiving yards in 2013.) He earned All-Metro and All-League honors his senior year and was named the All-Purpose Player of the Year. Despite his solid production on the field, Johnson only received one scholarship offer from a small Division I FCS school in Utah.

Committing to Weber State & the Cornerback Position

When I was at the University of Utah, I coached Sean Smith… At one time he was one of the highest paid corners in the NFL, and in a lot of ways, I’d rather have Taron over him. He’s just that well rounded.

Weber State Head Coach Jay Hill on Johnson’s style of play. (Courtesy of Matthew Fairburn)

According to Matthew Fairburn, Weber (pronounced WEE-ber) State head coach Jay Hill encouraged Taron to switch to corner full time citing both a pressing need at the position and a robust track record of developing defensive backs. Prior to his tenure at Weber State, Hill spent 13 years as a defensive assistant with the University of Utah. He coached players like Sean Smith, Eric Weddle, Brice McCain, and Andre Dyson, who went on to have lengthy NFL careers. (In other words, he turned more than two Utes into pro-caliber players.)

Johnson was determined to become the “Damian Lillard of Football”. (Photo courtesy of Robert Casey/Ogden (Utah) Standard-Examiner)

The move to corner paid off big time for Johnson, as he recorded 172 tackles (eight for loss), 48 passes defensed (42 pass break-ups and six interceptions), two sacks, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery in his four years as a Wildcat. He earned Big Sky All-Conference honorable mentions as a sophomore, Second Team All-Conference honors as a junior, and First Team All-Conference and All-American honors as a senior. He holds the all-time and single-season school records for pass breakups (42 and 12, respectively). While he was a team captain as a senior, he was not a vocal leader; he let his play do the talking. Furthermore, Johnson became the fourth player in Weber State history to play in the Senior Bowl and earned an invite to the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine.

Going Head-First into the NFL

He reminds me a lot of a corner that I played with in Buffalo… Antoine Winfield. He’s physical like that, he’s got good instincts like that. He’s not the fastest guy…, but they’re very similar in their kind of game.

Coach Jay Hill on the similarities between Johnson and Bills great Antoine Winfield. (Courtesy of Matthew Fairburn)

Johnson’s measurements didn’t stand out at the 2018 NFL Combine. However, he did have a memorable moment. If scouts didn’t know he had a nose for getting to the ball during his collegiate career, they found out when he took the field for the individual drills.

Yes, Taron Johnson was the prospect who took a football to the face at the Combine. Ultimately, his below-average measurements and meme-worthy highlight didn’t deter Bills general manager, Brandon Beane, from drafting him in the fourth round (121st overall) in the draft.

The Buffalo Nickel (Corner)

He [Taron] plays one of the hardest positions on the football field… Playing nickel, you have to know a lot of details playing that position. You’ve got to play it in a physical manner, and he does… In his mind, he is the biggest guy out there…

Safety Jordan Poyer on Johnson’s development at the nickel corner position. (Courtesy of Jay Skurski)

2018

In his rookie year, Johnson recorded 42 tackles (one for loss), three passes defensed (two breakups and one interception), one sack, and one forced fumble. He ranked third (tied) on the Bills in forced fumbles, fourth in picks, seventh (tied) in passes defensed and sacks, eighth in tackles, and ninth (tied) in tackles for loss.

2019

In his sophomore campaign, Johnson had slightly better numbers. He tallied 50 tackles (two for loss), five passes defensed (all breakups), one sack, and one forced fumble. That season, he ranked third (tied) on the team in passes defensed and forced fumbles, seventh (tied) in sacks, eighth in tackles, and ninth (tied) in tackles for loss.

2020

So far this season, Johnson’s numbers have skyrocketed. In 13 games, he has produced 81 tackles (five for loss), five passes defensed (four breakups and one interception), one sack, one forced fumble, and one pick-six. He currently leads the team in defensive scores, which was Buffalo’s first in nearly three years. He is also second (tied) in tackles for loss and forced fumbles, third in tackles, third (tied) in passes defensed and picks, and sixth (tied) in sacks.

The Process Player

Taron Johnson has a “dog mentality” that has meshed well with Sean McDermott’s Process. (Photo courtesy of James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Johnson’s numbers may not be that impressive, but he has been a “dog” as Buffalo’s nickel corner according to coaches and teammates. As Coach Hill and Jordan Poyer have said, Johnson plays bigger than his build, like Antoine Winfield (Senior and Junior). To put this another way, he has no problem hitting above his weight. (My father and I have wondered why McDermott and Frazier continue to put him on the field against 21 personnel {two tight ends, one running back}. Now we know.)

Taron Johnson is one of the “process players” that McDermott and Beane covet. He has overcome adversity and clawed his way to success every step of the way. He likely won’t put up record setting numbers in coverage or run support, but he will leave everything out on the field. Something that his teammates, coaches, and mother wouldn’t have any other way.

Author’s Notes

* All player stats provided by MaxPreps.com (High School), Weber State (College), NFLCombineResults.com (Combine/Pro Day results), and Pro Football Reference (NFL).

* Supplemental Articles courtesy of Jay Skurski (Buffalo News), Matthew Fairburn (Formerly of New York Upstate), Sal Maiorana (Democrat & Chronicle), Matt Miller (Bleacher Report) and Joe Buscaglia (Formerly of Channel 7 WKBW in Buffalo).

We are approaching the end of the 2020 season and, by extension, the “2020 Vision” series. So stay tuned for those and all my other articles. If you would like to see my thoughts on all things not Bills, follow me on Twitter (@zvaughn2712).

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