Potential Plan for Rams to Replace Defensive Leader Taking Shape

John Johnson III

Getty John Johnson III is now with the Cleveland Browns, but his departure leaves a significant leadership void in the safety spot for the Los Angeles Rams.

In the Los Angeles Rams 2021 secondary, the franchise has no safety who has played beyond four NFL seasons.

Why the youthful representation? Heady and vocal fifth-year veteran safety John Johnson III is gone, having left the Rams via free agency to the Cleveland Browns and bequeathing the leadership void in the defensive back end in the process.

Now, someone in the Rams safety group has to step in and take on the leadership and communication reins Johnson held in his four seasons in L.A. Johnson not only leaves behind the role of defensive communicator, but Rams fans will likely remember the man who intercepted Drew Brees on his back in the 2019 NFC championship game in overtime before the winning field goal sailed through the uprights.

Who Could Become the Next ‘J.J’

Could Taylor Rapp be the new voice and top safety? The third-year veteran Rapp is one of the older safeties now in the defensive back room along with fellow third-year safety Nick Scott. But Rapp knows replacing “J.J.” comes with solidifying the leader role, which he explained to reporters following the Wednesday OTA practice.

“I think No. 1: He was an amazing leader for our defensive backroom and our defense as well,” Rapp told reporters. “That’s the No. 1 thing we’ll have to replace, that leadership role.”

Rapp added that he did have to replace Johnson III once: In 2019 when he was limited to six games.

“As a rookie, I had to step in with the injury to J.J.,” Rapp said, as Johnson III had to nurse an injured shoulder.

But Rapp himself is trying to return from his own injury-plagued season. An early knee injury prevented him from practicing during full padded summer practices in 2020 and wound up backing up Jordan Fuller. Rapp was held to nine games and started in five. He managed 43 tackles, three pass breakups and one interception. However, those numbers were a drop off from his 2019 production.

Second-year safety Fuller is another working towards becoming the “J.J” of the 2021 safety unit. Again, Fuller received extensive playing time after Rapp went down and went on to pick off three passes in 12 starts.

“I definitely take it on my shoulders,” he said to reporters about assuming the new leader mantle during a video conference call on May 25. “And I know just all the DBs as a group are trying to take that on. He (Johnson III) was a great leader, great communicator. Really, really smart. So that’s kind of part of the reason I want to work on my Football 101, like learning the ins and outs of the game because John was great at that. That’s what I’ve been focusing on and what everyone else is focusing on.”

Fuller is honing in on developing the cerebral side of playing safety, a trait Johnson III taught the younger safeties, explaining “When to expect run and pass, what formations give me certain tells, stuff like that. Working on a bunch of stuff above the neck.”

Examining the Rest of the Safety Group

Between Rapp and Fuller, both have a combined 27 starts between them. In the rest of the safety room, only three players have seen action but no starts in their young careers: Scott with 31 games played, Juju Hughes with 12 and Terrell Burgess at seven.

The Rams know finding the next Johnson III-type is a key task for 2021. Rapp, though, believes every safety has to step up in “J.J’s” absence.

“I loved J.J. Everyone loved J.J. With him leaving, it obviously was tough for our defense, our back end and for our team too,” Rapp said. “He’s a hard guy to replace. But we’re just going to have to have guys step up. And I think we have the right guys in the room.”