Jaguars have a keeper in Antonio Johnson, who cracked NFL Media's All-Rookie team

• The Jaguars found a gem in the fifth round pick of the 2023 draft when they selected Antonio Johnson, who made NFL Media's All-Rookie team.

Jacksonville Jaguars safety Antonio Johnson (26) runs onto the field before a regular season NFL
Jacksonville Jaguars safety Antonio Johnson (26) runs onto the field before a regular season NFL / Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union / USA

As the draft progresses, it's harder for teams to find playmakers. Yet, every year, there's always a player who slips for whatever reason but ends up making an impact for the club that picks him. In 2023, the Jacksonville Jaguars found such a player when they chose defensive back Antonio Johnson. Although getting limited playing time in his first NFL season, he made the most out of it. Bucky Brooks of NFL Media took notice and included him in his All-Rookie team.

Johnson was one of two Jaguars rookies who made the team. The other was right tackle Anton Harrison. Regarding, the former, Brooks argues that there was no way he would omit him, noting that he showcased his game-changing skills in 2023 and should be in line for a bigger role next season.

"Like Brian Branch, Johnson spent a lot of time defending the slot, but I had to squeeze him onto this roster. Sue me. After taking over as the nickel defender in Jacksonville’s sub-packages, Johnson flashed the instincts, awareness and ball skills that had some scouts smitten with his potential during the pre-draft process. With a pair of interceptions, a sack and a forced fumble in a part-time role, the lengthy defensive back could flourish with more opportunities in 2024. "

Originally projected to go in the first or second round, Johnson fell to the fifth. Listed as a safety in college, he played multiple roles on defense, including nickel. This versatility was on full display early in training camp. Although the team's brass said that the former Texas A&M Aggie would get reps at safety at first, it wasn't long before he started practicing in the slot.

Early in the season, Johnson didn't get much playing time. In fact, he was inactive the first four games while dealing with a hamstring injury, but he progressively saw his workload increase. As defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell said at the time, the rookie had earned more snaps on defense. The East St. Louis native rewarded the team's trust by registering three turnovers in nine games. He finished the year with 17 total tackles, two interceptions, one forced fumble, three passes defensed and one sack.

The Jacksonville Jaguars must give Antonio Johnson a bigger role in 2024

There's no doubt the Jaguars found a gem in Antonio Johnson based on his draft slot. Then again, his success as a rookie shouldn't have impressed those who saw him play in college. Moving forward, Jacksonville needs to find where he can have the biggest impact in 2024. With incumbent Tre Herndon set to become a free agent, the coaching staff could keep Johnson in the slot full-time. An alternative is to move him to safety, his natural position.

To pave the way for Johnson, the Jaguars could release veteran Rayshawn Jenkins, with the bonus of potentially clearing cap space. Jenkins will count $12.28 million against the cap in 2024 but releasing him would create $5.1 million in space with $7.136 in dead money. He inked a four-year deal worth $35 million in 2021 but is coming off a somewhat underwhelming campaign.

It's not a given that the Jaguars will part ways with either Johnson or Jenkins. However, they must find Johnson a spot in the starting lineup. Simply, he's too talented to keep him on the bench. In a limited sample, he flashed what he could do. Imagine how much better he can be with a season of experience under his belt.

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