A two-year letter winner in college at Louisville after transferring from Blinn Junior College (Brenham, Texas), Chris Johnson played in 13 games in his senior year, and started seven of his last eight contests. With 44 total tackles (32 solo), one tackle for loss and seven passes defended, he was not particularly impressive. However, he also stood out on a special teams unit that ranked among the nation's best that year. He was also honorable mention (enter Cris Carter: "honorable mention, HONERABLE MENTION!") junior college All-America choice following his sophomore season at Blinn JC where he had seven interceptions and a pair of blocked field goals in 2000.
It's been a long road for the Raiders starting cornerback. Drafted late in the seventh round by the Green Bay Packers coming off of a knee surgery, "The doctor told me that I would probably never play because the position that I play would be too much on my knee, and here it is my seventh season in the NFL being a starter for the Oakland Raiders. It's just a true testimony and a true blessing to me that I have lasted this long," Johnson said recently. "I want to play five or six more years, so to have a ten plus year career going into this league is a blessing alone. Numbers don't mean anything, it's about what work you put in; how long you put in the work to stay in the league. They always tell me, ‘N.F.L. stands for not for long', but I have a lot to improve so I know I can get better over the next couple of years while I finish my career up."
He was tossed around a bit, spent a few years in St. Louis trying to earn his way into a starting role with the Rams. He played in 14 games and started one at cornerback. He scored one kickoff return touchdown, had 24 tackles and one forced fumble and fumble recovery. In 2006, he was signed by the Kansas City Chiefs, but released before the season started. They may live to regret that decision, as in 2007, he signed with the Raiders, a bitter rival.
"Being drafted in the 7th round in '03 really was the best thing that could've happened for me because I think I stayed hungry, the whole time, throughout my career," says Johnson. "You see a lot of guys who get drafted in the first or second round, they don't make it but like for two or three years. But this is my seventh year as a late 7th round draft pick. To keep that passion and keep that fire burning inside of me to provide for my family and provide for my kids; my goal is to overcome the obstacles in front of me."
Johnson likes what he sees forthcoming in Oakland and he is very grateful for his opportunity to be a part of the franchise. But basically, until his blossoming late in 2008, he was an above average special teams player. The Raiders definitely have an eye for good special team players, with one of the best special teams units in the NFL. There's no doubt that he was brought in to play special teams.
However, after DeAngelo Hall was paid $8 million for eight games ($7 million signing bonus, $1 million base salary), and Atlanta received a 2nd and 5th round draft pick, Al Davis released the Pro Bowl corner who would not restructure his 7 year $72 million contract. It was said, at that time, that Hall couldn't hang in the Raiders man-to-man scheme. Nnamdi Asomugha said that Hall wasn't given time to adjust. He believed, at the time, that the move was detrimental to the team and the locker room atmosphere.
But Johnson seized an opportunity to be more than just a special team's guru for the Raiders. "Chris Johnson, we believe, was the third best corner here and at some point it became he was the second best corner here," Raiders Head Coach Tom Cable said after the release of DeAngelo Hall. "That facilitated the ability to make this decision the way we have."
Johnson's first Raiders start at cornerback came in a September 28th, 2008 game against San Diego. In that game, he recorded the first interception of his NFL career. Yet the real impact of Johnson was felt later in the season. Against the Dolphins he recorded nine solo tackles. He assumed his permanent starting role in the next game against the rival Broncos on November 20th, 2008. Denver had torched Hall in the season opener; and conversely Johnson held his ground against Jay Cutler and a sound passing attack in Denver. Oakland won 31-10.
Johnson held his own for the remainder of the year as well. His second career interception against Kansas City the next week he returned 44 yards. He followed that up with five tackles and an assist with a tipped pass against the Patriots. Three tackles, three tipped passes and an interception against Houston while the Raiders cornerbacks held Andre Johnson to two catches. He had four tackles and a tipped pass against Tampa Bay to end the season.
He finished the '08 season on such a high note that www.Walterfootball.com ranked him the seventh best free agent cornerback in the 2009 offseason, ahead of former Raiders CB's Phillip Buchanan, who was ranked tenth, DeAngelo Hall, who was eleventh.
Johnson received all sorts of praise from local media for his 2008 performance as well. Patrick A. Patterson of the Oakland Raiders Examiner said, "Johnson came out of nowhere to play like a madman when he took over for the departed DeAngelo Hall," adding, "Chris Johnson had a stellar half season."
Jerry MacDonald of The Oakland Tribune reported, "[Johnson] was credited by owner Al Davis with being the sole reason for a reversal of fortune against the Denver Broncos."
Levi "Dizzle" Damien from Thoughts from the Darkside wrote; "CJ was nothing short of amazing...he was a thorn in the side of the opposing quarterbacks as well as the receiver's he was covering." He started eight games and made the TFDS Ballers List five times.
"I've always tried to emulate Deion Sanders, that's my guy, that's the guy I look up to," Johnson says. "Until I get my respect, I know [quarterbacks] are coming after me. I don't really look at it as being picked on, but it's having the opportunity. I know [Nnamdi Asomugha] says week in and week out he gets bored. He gets bored just playing the right side, [and] I'm getting all the action. I get more work so I guess I'm not having a quote/unquote ‘boring day' like Nnamdi normally has Sunday in and Sunday out."
During the course of the 2009 season, Johnson lost a bit of his initial luster, but he still put together a solid year. Playing and starting in 15 games, Johnson had 18 defended passes, three interceptions, 58 solo tackles and nine assists. Aside from matching his interceptions total of 2008, all those numbers were improved significantly in 2009.
Along with Nnamdi Asomugha, Johnson helped establish one of the best run support and tackling CB tandems in the NFL in 2009. "A lot of people don't think corners can tackle, but I wrap my game around being a hard-hitter and a sure tackler. Last year I had a couple of good hits, and I always look for a good hit that would make the crowd stand up out of their seats, make the crowd go crazy, and swing the momentum to the defensive side of the ball," says Johnson. "So if you come out to see me and you see a running back coming at me, either one of two things is going to happen: either he's gonna get knocked out, or he's gonna get scared and go in a different direction."
In 2010, Johnson is looking forward to having better play up front. "It would help me out tremendously to have the D-line generating a good pass rush and make the QB's rush their throws," Johnson says. "As a DB it helps you to make more plays. So if we can pull all this together, I'll be looking at a seven or eight pick season. We have some good young guys who can do that, so whoever steps up, you know, it's whoever's ball that wants it."
I expect Johnson to keep grinding in his attempt to become a player the value of his idol, Deion Sanders. He has proven that he has the capability to be the Pro Bowl talent he wants to be, but he needs to continue pushing himself to be better. He says, "I never want to say ‘I made it' because once you say that, you settle. I always want to advance my game each and every time I step foot on the field."
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