Lonnie Johnson Jr. is seeing the game from a different vantage point.
Since the imposing former Texans second-round draft pick from Kentucky made the full-time move from cornerback to the safety position, he’s been adapting to his new job responsibilities.
As the biggest defensive back on the roster and one of its fastest, Johnson is well-suited to the physical challenges of playing safety. At 6-foot-2, 213 pounds with 4.38 speed in the 40-yard dash, Johnson is tall, fast and aggressive.
As Johnson continues to grow more comfortable as a safety heading into his third NFL season after moving there last season after playing cornerback as a rookie, the Texans’ new coaching staff is encouraged by his continued overall growth and work ethic.
“Well, the first thing I saw was the length, how tall, how long he was,” said Texans safeties coach Greg Jackson, who played safety in the NFL for a dozen seasons and intercepted 32 career passes. “I think the biggest thing when you look at a player like that and he’s got the size, the first thing you think about is, ‘Man, that would be a great looking safety.’ One of the things about him is that he has all the ability to come inside and play. The problem with that sometimes with corners moving to safety is that you have those guys that are usually playing everything from outside in.
“I think he’s done a tremendous job at moving to the safety position and start to understand how to take the proper angles as a safety. It’s a little bit different playing the corner position because you’re just playing everything from outside in. With him, it’s more of the just repetition for him and being consistent at what he does. He’s a really good player.”
Signed to a four-year, $5.214 million contract that includes $3.039 million guaranteed with a $1.812 million signing bonus, Johnson has climbed steep ladders in his path from tough circumstances growing up in Gary, Ind., before earning two college degrees, one from Garden City Community College and another at Kentucky in communications.
Johnson figures to compete with returning starter Eric Murray and special-teams standout A.J. Moore for playing time at safety next to Justin Reid.
Johnson played in every game last season with five starts and had a career-high 76 tackles, one for a loss, with three quarterback pressures. As a rookie, Johnson played in 14 games with seven starts and recorded 41 tackles with seven passes defended and no interceptions.
"Lonnie has position flexibility," Texans defensive coordinator Lovie Smith said. "I think it’s safe to say, we see Lonnie as a safety right now. He feels good about that. He’s got excellent size. He’s got a corner skillset, too. Really feel good about him fitting into our defense."
Johnson played 703 snaps on defense last season, 64 percent overall after playing 529 snaps, 49 percent, as a rookie two seasons ago.
Safety, because of his physical style, appears to be the best fit for Johnson.
“In the NFL, it’s hard because they don’t let you touch receivers much anymore because of the rules,” said Jeff Sims, Johnson’s junior college coach at Garden City. “Lonnie was taught by us to be a physical corner. He could maul you at the line of scrimmage. He’s long. He would beat you up. He would disrupt the timing. Safety is a great position for Lonnie.”
During a win over the New England Patriots last season, Johnson had two quarterback hits on Cam Newton. That included one clutch pressure with Reid that forced Newton to throw incomplete on fourth down late in the fourth quarter to clinch a 27-20 victory.
“I expect us to get a lot of turnovers and we just want to go out and capitalize on everything we didn’t capitalize on last year,” Johnson said. “That’s about just all of us working together, me, J-Reid and Eric Murray. J-Reid, that’s my evil twin. We plan on working together with bad intentions toward the offensive players we’re competing against.”
Jackson is looking for Johnson to continue to hone his skills and work on the nuances of the safety position. That means crisp tackling, being sound in his coverage assignments and communicating clearly and quickly with his teammates.
“He’s athletic, but I think the biggest thing with him is just understanding the concept of the safety position and how to just take proper angles and how to be a better tackler,” Jackson said. “I think one of the things with him just during this OTA camp is that he’s been doing a pretty good job at doing those things. He’s been focused. He’s been concentrating. He’s been here. That’s the first step that he must take.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.