Aug 4, 2023; Canton, OH, USA; The Pro Football Hall of Fame logo at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Pro Football Hall of Fame CB Jimmy Johnson dies at 86

Pro Football Hall of Famer Jimmy Johnson, a lockdown cornerback who spent his entire 16-year career with the San Francisco 49ers, died on Wednesday evening, his family announced. He was 86.

The Hall of Fame made the announcement Thursday for Johnson’s family, which said he had been in declining health for some time and had remained in the San Francisco area.

Enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1994, Johnson played from 1961-76. He competed in 213 games — at the time a franchise record later broken by Jerry Rice. Johnson’s 47 interceptions also were a team mark later broken by Ronnie Lott.

“Jimmy Johnson was extraordinarily athletically talented,” Pro Football Hall of Fame President Jim Porter said in a statement. “The 49ers enjoyed the luxury of using him on offense and defense early in his career to fill team needs. Once he settled in at left cornerback, he flourished. The notion that a ‚Äėlockdown’ cornerback could cut the field in half for the opposition was true with Jimmy.

“Only rarely would other teams’ quarterbacks even look his direction, and more often than not regretted the decision if they challenged him.”

Johnson was selected to the Pro Bowl for four straight seasons (1969-72) as well as in 1974. He was first-team All-Pro in 1970-72. The Pro Football Hall of Fame selected him for the All-Decade Team of the 1970s.

“I don’t look at someone and think that he can’t beat me,” Johnson said. “If you play long enough, you’re going to get beat. The question and the key to your effectiveness is how often.”

He also played halfback and flanker in 1962 and 1963, catching 40 passes for 690 yards and four touchdowns.

San Francisco selected him as one of its three first-round draft choices (sixth overall in 1961). He was a football star at UCLA at wingback and defensive back as well as a track standout in hurdles and long jump.

His brother, Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete Rafer Johnson, was his presenter at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony on July 30, 1994.

“Jimmy is a quiet man, but he played with determination and commitment,” Rafer Johnson said. “Most of all, Jim was and is a gentle man and a true gentleman.”

Jimmy Johnson won the Pro Football Writers’ George Halas Award for courageous play in 1971 after playing half of that season with a broken wrist. He twice received the Len Eshmont Award, chosen by 49ers players and given to a teammate for inspirational play.

“Jimmy Johnson has not only been a great football player, he has been one of the game’s finest citizens throughout his career,” Joe Thomas, the team’s vice president and general manager at that time said when the 49ers retired Johnson’s No. 37 jersey in 1977. “There is no one in the NFL who does not have the highest respect for him, both as a player and as a man.”

–Field Level Media

Illinois Fighting Illini defensive back Devon Witherspoon (31) was a zero-star recruit out of high school. Will he be the first DB drafted in 2023? Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

NFL draft position series: Defensive backs

Cover men are in high demand, and the ability of defensive backs to counter multifaceted offenses has never been more coveted.

Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon and Alabama safety Brian Branch are consensus top-15 players in the 2023 class, but depth is far better at corner, where eye-of-beholder applications based on scheme bump the value of Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez and Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr.

Multiple defensive backs were selected in the top 10 in three consecutive drafts. The first corner off the board in 2022, Cincinnati’s Sauce Gardner, landed with the New York Jets and turned in an All-Pro, Defensive Rookie of the Year season.

Here’s a look at this year’s cream of the crop in the secondary.

1. Devon Witherspoon, CB, Illinois
Projected Pick: 6

If prospects were ranked based solely on their competitive grade, Witherspoon has a case to be No. 1. At 5-11, 184, he hits with a sting and clocked a 4.43 40-yard dash showing he’s got more in his bag than will. His raw technique is a result of being newer to the game, having logged just two seasons of high school football and starting fulltime two seasons at Illinois. A worker bee with a prove-it mentality, teams might worry about his physique (170-pound range at U of I) and below-average bulk, but only until they invest in enough film to see he’s never limited by his frame.

2. Brian Branch, S, Alabama
Projected Pick: 15

With apologies to Gonzalez supporters, we’re giving a slight value edge to Branch as a hybrid or flex defensive back.

Training under Nick Saban for defensive backs might be akin to a writing group with Hemingway or Sailing 101 with Magellan. Branch can do a little bit of everything and serve as a spare cornerback in big nickel or dime defense to bring versatility to schemes but is at his best in the middle of the field or in the slot. He’s quick but not a blazer running straight-line angles over the top. Like Witherspoon, Branch isn’t huge and teams that want primitive sledgehammers at safety might opt to pass and look to Boise State’s 6-4, 210-pounder JL Skinner.

3. Christian Gonzalez, CB, Oregon
Projected Pick: 10

There are a half-dozen cornerbacks with 4.3 40-yard dash times likely to be selected in the top 100 picks. Gonzalez separates himself from all but Georgia’s Kelee Ringo (one of our top underrated CB prospects in this draft) with arm length, height, age (not yet 21) and that 41.5-inch vertical. Recruited as a safety and attended Colorado first, he developed rapidly into a cover man opponents didn’t test with the Ducks. His combination of skills equates to shutdown potential. Gonzalez has the natural tools to erase most of his youthful mistakes in coverage. Only two serious and meaningful questions are left for GMs: Will he tackle consistently and can he add strength to fill out a wiry frame?

4. Joey Porter Jr., CB, Penn State
Projected Pick: 17

Loquacious QB hunter Joey Porter, feared pass rusher formerly of the Steelers, Dolphins and Cardinals, raised one lean, mean defensive back to the surprise of absolutely no one. Dad might now be “gramps,” but the little Porter is clamps. He’s 6-2, 195 and defends receivers in coverage as if they swiped his cell phone. A jam at the line is guaranteed — Porter has the length of a pass rusher, a confirmed wingspan of more than 80 inches — and closing speed to be used in blitz packages or convert to safety. He steers speed receivers off of the route plan consistently and was part of the reason he became difficult for quarterbacks to challenge as they moved to secondary reads. When he gets beat, Porter tends to grab or fall behind too far to recover, raising open doubt regarding his feet in zone schemes.

5. Emmanuel Forbes, CB, Mississippi State
Projected Pick: 19

There are too many almosts in the scouting report for Forbes to be considered much higher than No. 20 overall. He’s almost 6-1, almost 170 pounds and almost too fast and feisty to still be on the board in the second round. Teams and schemes that covet nickel cornerbacks will be most attracted to Forbes because of his ball skills and rare speed. He covers 10 yards in 1.47 seconds and 40 in 4.36 and had 14 career interceptions (six in 2022) in three seasons with 34 starts at Mississippi State. Not scared or intimidated, he also had five picks as a true freshman starter in the SEC. He’s also hard to hide in the running game. Atypical arm length for his height is the only thing that might keep Forbes alive in head-on collisions with big NFL running backs.

SECOND-ROUND TARGETS
6. Kelee Ringo, CB, Georgia: Repeating our belief Ringo is a first-round talent, he’s a cookie-cutter fit for a few teams who’ll value that the 20-year-old is already an elite athlete but needs pro coaching to meet his immense ceiling.

7. Deonte Banks, CB, Maryland: A starter since his true freshman season, Banks has track speed and isn’t shy on muscle, but will he catch it? Just one interception since 2019.

8. Antonio Johnson, S, Texas A&M: Box safety with a linebacker mentality, Johnson held up covering the flat and as a slot defender for the Aggies.

9. Jordan Battle, S, Alabama: Bigger and more physical than his teammate and tandem safety Brian Branch, Battle is more awareness, brains and instincts. Can be physical and won’t get you beat.

10. Clark Phillips III, CB, Utah: Playmaker in HS as a receiver and defensive back was a top recruit and nearly went to Ohio State. Three-year starter (31 games) at Utah is entering NFL after junior season. The 184-pounder was the top bench press performer at the combine (18 reps of 225), 2022 team captain for the Utes and returned two of his Pac-12 best six interceptions last season for TDs.

–By Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media

Lakeland (7) Cormani McClain runs back an interception against Osceola during first half action in Lakeland Fl  Friday December 2,2022.Ernst Peters/The Ledger

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Colorado, Deion Sanders flip 5-star cornerback from Miami

Deion Sanders continues to bring in highly-rated prospects to Colorado, on Thursday getting his first five-star recruit to commit to the Buffaloes.

Cormani McClain, a cornerback from Lakeland, Fla., and the No. 4 prospect in ESPN’s rankings, had verbally committed to Miami in October, but on Thursday he announced he had flipped to Colorado. McClain is the highest-rated recruit for Colorado since ESPN began the rankings in 2006.

Miami did not lock in McClain during the early signing period in late December, as he waited when Colorado hired Sanders away from Jackson State. McClain (6-foot-2, 165 pounds) is the No. 1 prospect in the state of Florida.

He won’t be able to sign a national letter of intent until the February signing period. McClain would join Travis Hunter, a five-star cornerback who flipped from Florida State to Jackson State and then-head coach Sanders in the Class of 2022. Hunter transferred to Colorado in the offseason.

–Field Level Media

Dec 15, 2019; Glendale, AZ, USA; Cleveland Browns safety Damarious Randall (23) against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Damarious Randall re-signs with Seahawks, shifts to CB

Damarious Randall re-signed with the Seattle Seahawks on Friday, however he’ll be playing a different position in the upcoming season.

The Seahawks did not divulge the terms of the contract for Randall, who will be a cornerback in 2021 after spending his three previous seasons as a safety. He spent his first three NFL campaigns as a cornerback while playing with the Green Bay Packers.

Randall’s switch to cornerback comes on the heels of Shaquill Griffin and Quinton Dunbar leaving the team in free agency. D.J. Reed, Tre Flowers and free-agent addition Ahkello Witherspoon are listed as cornerbacks with the Seahawks.

Randall, 28, recorded three tackles in 10 games last season while playing primarily on special teams.

He has 293 tackles, 14 interceptions and two fumble recoveries in 75 career games (56 starts) with the Packers, Cleveland Browns and Seahawks since being selected by Green Bay with the 30th overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft.

–Field Level Media