FAST TRACK TO THE FU­TURE

Bears rookie CB John­son ad­just­ing well to pro level, ready to push for start­ing job

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - JA­SON LIESER jlieser@sun­times.com | @Ja­sonLieser

The Bears hoped they were get­ting an in­stant starter when they spent a sec­ond-round draft pick on cor­ner­back Jay­lon John­son in April. Now the process of fig­ur­ing out whether he’s ready has ac­cel­er­ated.

Any thought of bring­ing John­son along grad­u­ally van­ished when one of his two com­peti­tors for the job, Ar­tie Burns, suf­fered a torn an­te­rior cru­ci­ate lig­a­ment the sec­ond day of prac­tice. The job is John­son’s to take, and he doesn’t have an ounce of hes­i­ta­tion as he pushes to lock down the spot in the next two weeks.

“I’ve al­ways felt like I was ready,” John­son said Thurs­day. “I feel like ev­ery­thing I have worked for and been do­ing all these years just came to pass, and now that I’m here, I feel like I’m ready. I still have my mis­takes to get out of the way, but phys­i­cally, I feel like I’m ready.”

John­son might be slightly un­der­sized at 6-feet, 196 pounds, but with a 40-yard dash time of 4.5 se­conds, he should be able to keep up. He has had his hands full cov­er­ing Allen Robin­son, An­thony Miller and oth­ers in prac­tice but hasn’t been over­whelmed.

“I felt re­ally good [about] what I have been able to do, just go­ing out there and be­ing able to com­pete,” John­son said. “The speed hasn’t been too shock­ing for me. It’s been re­ally easy to adjust to. It’s just about learn­ing the game, learn­ing some tricks that come with . . . play­ing against pro­fes­sional ath­letes.”

While Burns was get­ting a shot to win the job, and it hurts to lose any cor­ner­back depth, his exit speeds up some­thing the Bears want to see any­way. In a year when they had just two draft picks out of the top 150, great thought went into us­ing the No. 50 slot to take John­son. The Bears did not have the lux­ury of choos­ing some­one who would need ex­tended time to de­velop at cor­ner­back, es­pe­cially af­ter mov­ing on from vet­eran Prince Amuka­mara. They in­tend for John­son to be a run­ning mate with two-time Pro Bowler Kyle Fuller in the short term and po­ten­tially re­place him as their No. 1 cor­ner down the road.

The Bears also have steady 10year vet­eran Buster Skrine at cor­ner but are likely to keep him un­derneath cov­er­ing slot re­ceivers.

The first test was for John­son to beat out Burns, a for­mer firstround­er who flamed out in Pitts­burgh, and third-year cor­ner Kevin To­liver. To­liver got just 16% of the de­fen­sive snaps last sea­son, with nearly all of them coming in the fi­nal month. But when Burns went down, the Bears turned to To­liver, who said Thurs­day he was “mo­ti­vated a lot” by the Bears draft­ing John­son.

But John­son isn’t afraid of com­pe­ti­tion. In fact, it doesn’t seem like he’s afraid of any­thing.

Utah coach Kyle Whit­ting­ham re­called John­son telling him upon ar­rival at cam­pus that he in­tended to play three years and bolt for the NFL. That was all the time he needed to put him­self in po­si­tion to be the sev­enth cor­ner­back drafted this year. He put to­gether an im­pres­sive ca­reer in his brief time with the Utes: seven in­ter­cep­tions (two for touch­downs), 21 pass breakups and 102 tack­les in 37 games. He did all that de­spite un­der­go­ing two surg­eries on his left shoul­der. He also had surgery to re­pair a torn labrum in his right shoul­der — he un­know­ingly played through it last sea­son — in March.

With the opener three weeks away, there’s still some mys­tery as to how much that in­jury will af­fect him. De­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Chuck Pagano said this week the team is lim­it­ing his snaps, but John­son said he feels “pretty good.” He did not seem con­cerned that it might hin­der his bid for a start­ing job.

“I am just try­ing to go out, get bet­ter and do my part,” John­son said. “And then, if they se­lect me to be [the starter], then I’ll be more than ready.”

MICHAEL CONROY/AP

The Bears drafted Jay­lon John­son (run­ning a drill at the scout­ing com­bine in March) with the idea that he might start as a rookie.

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