Antonio Johnson is PFF's pick for Jaguars 2024 breakout candidate

• PFF thinks Jaguars sophomore Antonio Johnson is in a position to take a leap in 2024.
Jacksonville Jaguars safety Antonio Johnson (26) dances around during the warm up period at the
Jacksonville Jaguars safety Antonio Johnson (26) dances around during the warm up period at the / Bob Self/Florida Times-Union / USA TODAY

The Jacksonville Jaguars struggled to stop opponents in the second half of 2023. Not surprisingly, they moved on from defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell after the season ended. Not everything was gloom and doom, though. There were a few bright spots, including Antonio Johnson. The Texas A&M product flashed playmaking potential, and Bradley Locker of Pro Football Focus thinks he'll pick up where he left off in Year 2.

Locker drew up a list of breakout candidates for all 16 AFC teams and picked Johnson for the Jaguars, noting that the East St. Louis, Illinois native posted a healthy 73.8 overall grade last year despite getting limited playing time.

"The Jaguars’ secondary will look different in 2024, with Darnell Savage and Ronald helping to replaceDarious Williams, Rayshawn JenkinsandTre Herndon. Despite the additions, Johnson is a strong in-house option to break out. The 2023 fifth-round selection earned a good 73.8 overall grade on just 172 snaps, checking boxes in tackling, coverage and even pass rush.

Whether in the slot or box, Johnson should play more for a Jacksonville defense that ranked 24th in expected points added (EPA) allowed per play from Weeks 10-18."

Johnson was projected to go in the first round of last year's draft but somehow slid to the fifth. He routinely lined up at different spots in the Aggies' backfield and that versatility carried over into the pros. Head coach Doug Pederson said after the Jaguars drafted Johnson that he would be playing safety but it didn't take him long to get reps at nickel.

A hamstring injury forced Johnson to miss four games to start the 2023 season but he started to make plays in the slot as soon as he was able to contribute. By the end of the year, he had fully replaced veteran Tre Herndon at nickel. In total, Johnson appeared in 13 games with three starts, registering two interceptions, three passes defensed, and one forced fumble.

But as productive as he was at nickel, Johnson will be moving back to safety in Year 2. Head coach Doug Pederson said as much during the annual NFL owners' meeting. To pave the way for him, the team released veteran Rayshawn Jenkins in the offseason. And to replace him in the slot, former first-round pick Darnell Savage was signed in free agency.

The Jaguars are putting Johnson in a position to succeed

Switching Antonio Johnson back to safety was one of the most meaningful changes the Jaguars made to the backfield. While he was a fine nickel cornerback, he can make a better use of his range at safety. Keep in mind that there's a new coaching staff in place, and they should be able to get the most out of Johnson in 2024.

To replace Mike Caldwell, the Jags hired Ryan Nielsen. They also brought in Kris Richard to coach the defensive backs. Richard has a promising track record of putting his players in a position to succeed. He coached Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Brandon Browner, and Earl Thomas during the Legion of Boom's heyday.

More recently, Richard mentored Marshon Lattimore with the New Orleans Saints. Under Richard, Lattimore went on to have two of his best NFL seasons despite dealing with injuries. This is to say that Johnson will benefit greatly from Richard's arrival, which makes him an easy choice for breakout candidate.

The Jacksonville Jaguars are expected to bounce back after a disappointing end to 2023. Having players like Antonio Johnson should make it possible.

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