Browns sign cornerback Kevin Johnson and wide receiver JoJo Natson

  • 2020 NFL Free Agency
  • Cleveland Browns
By Jereme Jones March 19, 2020 0 Comment
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The Browns continued building their depth on Thursday by signing cornerback Kevin Johnson and return specialist JoJo Natson.

New Cleveland Browns general manager Andrew Berry has been very busy this week trying to fill the many holes on the team’s roster. Thursday, he added two more players, Kevin Johnson and JoJo Natson. Both players signed one-year deals with the team.

Johnson, a former first-round pick, agreed to a one-year, $3.5 million contract that, according to Adam Schefter, could be worth up to $6 million with incentives.

Johnson, a fifth-year corner out of Wake Forest, was a first-round pick by the Houston Texans in 2015. He has dealt with injury issues throughout his career; he broke his foot in 2016, missing ten games that season. In 2017, Johnson sprained his MCL, which cost him four games. His 2018 season was lost due to a concussion he suffered in week one. In his four years with the Texans, he appeared in 36 games, starting 19. He had 14 passes defended with Houston and one interception. Houston released Johnson before the 2019 season. Following his release, he signed a one-year deal with the Buffalo Bills.

Last season with the Bills, Johnson played in a limited role; he was only on the field for 32% of defensive snaps. But there were some good signs for Johnson last year. First, he was able to stay healthy and play in all 16 games for the first time since his rookie season. Second, according to Pro Football Focus, he was the Bills’ most improved player last season. PFF rated Johnson as the 23rd best cornerback in the NFL last year.

While those numbers may be inflated a little due to his smaller role in Buffalo, they are nevertheless encouraging for the Browns. It may be a case where a young player is starting to find his footing in the NFL after an injury-filled career. If that is the case, this could be a great pick-up for Cleveland.

Johnson likely will serve as a slot corner for the Browns. A role filled last year by T. J. Carrie. Carrie was released by Cleveland earlier this off-season. Johnson also can play on the outside. That flexibility could be necessary over the course of a long season. With young starters Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams on the outside, Johnson won’t have to play a huge role this year to be valuable for the Browns.

Johnson becomes the fourth defensive free agent signed to a one-year contract by the Browns in the last two days. He joins defensive tackle Andrew Billings, linebacker B.J. Goodson, and safety Karl Joseph. All four players are young, Johnson is the oldest of the group at 27, and have upside potential. The Browns, who have a lot of holes to fill on their roster, appear to be taking a low-risk, short-term strategy to rebuilding the defense.

Cleveland Browns sign return specialist JoJo Natson

The other player signed by Cleveland on Thursday night was JoJo Natson. Natson, a wide receiver, and return specialist agreed to a one-year, $1 million contract with Cleveland.

Natson, who played his college football at Akron, originally signed with the Colts as an undrafted free agent in 2017. Following training camp, he was cut by the Colts and signed to the New York Jets’ practice squad. He appeared in seven games for the Jets in 2017, mostly as a kick and punt returner. He did have two catches that season for 18 yards. The Jets waived Natson shortly after the 2018 draft.

Natson then signed with the Los Angeles Rams, eventually finding his way onto the active roster in 2018. In 2018 and 2019, Natson saw action for the Rams as a return man. His career kick return average is 20.6 yards, and his career punt return average is 7.7.

Natson is the definition of a return specialist; in his three NFL seasons, he has only taken 21 snaps on offense. And, all 21 of those snaps were his rookie year. It appears he would fill a similar role in Cleveland. Last season, Natson averaged more yards on both kick and punt returns than the Browns did as a team. He is another good, low-risk role player signing by the Browns this off-season.

If Berry and the Browns can continue to fill needs and build depth through free agency, it will allow the team to focus on the best player available strategy in the draft. That could go a long way in helping the Browns improve their roster in the long-term. It is yet to be determined if Andrew Berry’s team will win this season, but there is no doubt the young general manager is winning the off-season so far.

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