Speaking shortly after his team's season ended, Rams general manager Les Snead said he could "definitely" envision a scenario under which Johnson returns. Snead added that Johnson, coming off his second consecutive franchise tag, "fit" the scheme of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, a stated concern entering the 2017 season. But that fit must be, in Snead's words, "ideal."
"Especially when it gets to guys that are obviously going to demand -- command, based on their ability and their performance -- top dollar," Snead said. "They definitely have to be ideal scheme fits."
Johnson is widely considered one of the top two or three cornerbacks potentially available on the free-agent market, but the numbers say he hasn't necessarily performed at an elite level.
Among 86 cornerbacks with at least 325 coverage snaps, Pro Football Focus had Johnson ranked 35th in opponents' completion percentage (57.3) and 36th in opponents' passer rating (79.8) when targeted, which accounts for every time a receiver was thrown a pass while Johnson was considered the primary man in coverage.
Johnson assumed the role as the Rams' primary cornerback starting in 2016, when Janoris Jenkins left to join the New York Giants, and gave up an 89.4 quarterback rating that year, ranked 34th. This past season, Johnson allowed 1.33 yards per coverage snap, which put him within the bottom 20 percent of qualified cornerbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. The analytics site gave Johnson an overall grade of 74.2, tied for 68th among 121 players at his position.
Sixteen cornerbacks who are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents graded higher than Johnson in 2017. They are: Patrick Robinson (ranked sixth), Tramon Williams (ninth), E.J. Gaines (13th), Rashaan Melvin (tied for 17th), Nickell Robey-Coleman (tied for 19th), TJ Carrie (tied for 22nd), Kyle Fuller (tied for 22nd), Byron Maxwell (25th), Brent Grimes (36th), Ross Cockrell (tied for 39th), Prince Amukamara (41st), Aaron Colvin (tied for 47th), Malcolm Butler (tied for 51st), Bashaud Breeland (tied for 54th), Johnathan Joseph (65th) and Terence Newman (66th).
That doesn't mean they all fit as alternatives, of course. Colvin and Robey-Coleman, Johnson's Rams teammate, primarily play the slot. Williams, Joseph and Grimes are approaching their mid-30s, with Newman turning 40 in September. Among those who remain, Butler, Robinson, Breeland and Gaines are shorter than 6-foot, which means they can't match the size and length of a 6-foot-2, 213-pound Johnson. Melvin -- listed at 6-foot-2, 196 pounds -- can, but has been plagued by injuries throughout his career.
That leaves five: Amukamara, Carrie, Cockrell, Fuller and Maxwell, all of whom have accumulated a lower career approximate value than Johnson.
Johnson had two interceptions in 2017 -- after recording one in 2016 -- but he also dropped a handful of easy ones. Only 10 players had more than Johnson's 12 pass breakups, according to ESPN Stats & Information. And Johnson handled himself adequately against the opposing team's primary receiver, an important factor for a Phillips defense that asks its cornerbacks to play a lot of man coverage.
Johnson spent a lot of time shadowing Pierre Garcon, Dez Bryant, Marqise Lee, Larry Fitzgerald, DeAndre Hopkins, Michael Thomas and Alshon Jeffery in 2017. Those seven combined to catch 30 of 52 targets for 472 yards and two touchdowns when Johnson was responsible for covering them, according to numbers compiled by ESPN analyst Mike Clay. They hauled in 57.7 percent of their targets, nearly eight percentage points below the NFL average.
"He does a good job," Phillips said of Johnson's ability to match up against the opponents' best receivers. "He's versatile to play both sides, which really helps you."
The Rams tried to trade Johnson last offseason, but they couldn't get a deal done. Johnson instead entered training camp upset that they never showed much interest in a long-term commitment.
"I believe the Rams are going in a different direction at the end of the season," Johnson said in late July. "It's out of my control."
But Johnson kept his focus, which is a lot easier to do with a $16.74 million salary. He was named a captain, and as the season went on and the winning became more frequent, Johnson, like so many in the Rams' locker room, progressively warmed up to the organization and its future, stating on several occasions he would be open to trying once again to negotiate an extension.
Salaries for the top cornerbacks average somewhere in the neighborhood of $13 million a year, and Johnson could very well command something in that range this offseason.
But the Rams might not be able to allocate so much to one player at that position. Kayvon Webster, their No. 2 cornerback, is coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon that could linger into training camp, and behind him there isn't much else. The Rams need a lot more depth at corner, and they appear to prioritize safety Lamarcus Joyner among their pending free agents.
If Johnson's salary demands get too high, it might finally be time to walk away.