John Johnson III has loved every second of football being back — and all other normal, pre-pandemic procedures — again at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus.
Johnson, the Browns' six-year safety veteran, has enjoyed being able to connect with teammates again and to lay the groundwork for the 2022 season, a year he believes will come easier to the Browns defense as they return several core players from last year. A chunk of them have spent the last two weeks furthering their chemistry on and off the field as part of offseason workouts, which have now entered Phase Two and allows for players to lightly practice together on the grass.
One of the best parts from Johnson's perspective, however, has been being able to interact with teammates without the distancing and masking parameters the league had implemented due to COVID-19 the last two seasons. Everything feels normal again in Berea, and it's made for an easier start to offseason workouts.
"I think it's better like this," Johnson said on a recent interview with Cleveland Browns Daily. "This is football. This is the greatest team sport there is. You're here with these guys six days a week, so it's good for bonding. I think it's going to be great for us. It's back to football. It feels real now."
Check out photos as players and staff work throughout the offseason
Johnson is optimistic about what's ahead for the defense in 2022 after the group slowly ascended toward one of the best units in the league last year.
The Browns ranked fifth in total defense and ended the season in terrific form, holding opponents to 20 or fewer points in seven of their final 11 games and generating 15 turnovers in that period. The group became the beast the Browns envisioned last offseason when they added players like Johnson, whose versatility led him to become an every-down player in his first four seasons with the Rams, and the expectation is to pick up where they left off.
Johnson, as well as other top secondary weapons in safeties Grant Delpit and Ronnie Harrison Jr. and cornerbacks Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome II and Greedy Williams, are all set to return. No introductions, save for the addition of third-round rookie CB Martin Emerson, will be needed among the group, which should make it easier for them to hit the field in training camp and quickly bloom.
Last year, the defense needed time to jell. It allowed 30 or more points three times in its first six games, which was a reason why the Browns started 3-3. The acclimation period for Johnson and others shouldn't be as long with so many familiar faces returning in Year 2.
"It's like riding a bike," Johnson said. "It's so simple, so easy now … I didn't know how hard it was going to be to make that transition until I made it. From Week 1 last year to now, it's night and day, and I just want to keep building on it.
Johnson said things especially clicked last year in Week 12. The defense generated four takeaways that week and left the game feeling as though they were a top unit in the league even though the Browns fell 16-10 to Baltimore. Johnson, as well as Delpit, Harrison and Ward all recorded interceptions in the game, and that was when Johnson believes the true potential of the secondary shined.
"We had four picks, and guys were just doing their job and making plays on the big stage," Johnson said. "That was later in the season, but that was when we were like, 'We're a good secondary.'"
The group is largely returning this year with the exception of CB Troy Hill, who was traded to the Rams on Day 3 of the NFL Draft.
The Browns still added another promising piece to the group, though, in Emerson, who was consistently stout against the top receivers in the SEC as a cornerback at Mississippi State and was the Browns' first draft pick of 2022.
Aside from Emerson, the Browns are high on the potential of Newsome, entering his second year in the league, and Williams and Delpit, who both overcame season-ending injuries from 2020 to produce quality seasons in 2021. Delpit, in particular, is a player Johnson believes will take off even more now that he has played a healthy year in the league.
"He's going to have a phenomenal year," Johnson said. "When he was called on, nothing changed (in the defense). We had three safeties out there and can put Ronnie in that nickel spot, so it was awesome having (Delpit) out there. I think he's going to take off."
The familiarity has made Johnson feel at home, and he believes it will translate to the same quality results the defense built toward the end of 2021.
"Just being around each other is great," he said. "I think all that continuity and chemistry will pay off on the field."