Rams John Johnson III continues under the radar -- but probably not for long

Rams second-year defensive back John Johnson III (43) has a team-best four interceptions and ranks second on the team with 111 tackles. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- He was overlooked coming out of college two years ago and again earlier this month when Pro Bowl rosters were announced.

But if safety John Johnson III continues at his current pace, it's unlikely that the Los Angeles Rams safety will remain under the radar much longer.

"He's got all the traits and characteristics that you're looking for," Rams coach Sean McVay said of the second-year pro from Boston College. "You're really not limited in any way that you can utilize a player of his versatility."

In a crowded secondary that features All-Pro cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters and safety Lamarcus Joyner, who is playing this season on the franchise tag, it's Johnson who has a team-best four interceptions and whose 111 tackles rank second to inside linebacker Cory Littleton's 121 for the NFC West champions.

"His tackling is so outstanding. Open field, around the ball, around the line of scrimmage, those kinds of things," defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. "He's learned more and more about what to do in different areas that he plays."

In his 3-4 scheme, Phillips has utilized the 6-foot, 209-pound Johnson near the line of scrimmage and deep in coverage. Johnson can act like a linebacker, strong safety or free safety.

The Rams selected Johnson in the third round with the 91st overall pick. At Boston College, Johnson played each position in the secondary, and in four seasons, he intercepted six passes while deflecting 14 more, had 2.5 sacks and forced two fumbles.

But he was the 10th safety taken in the 2017 draft. And that's something he won't soon forget.

"I just feel like the school I came from gets overlooked a little bit," Johnson said. "And I didn't run the fastest time at the combine, so I think I dropped a little bit there, but other than that, I'm not sure. I'm happy I came here, though."

Johnson ran the 40-yard dash in 4.61 seconds, which would hardly prove indicative of where he measured among defensive backs in his class. This season, Johnson leads the group in tackles and ranks third in interceptions.

"What's as impressive as anything is just his football IQ," McVay said. "He's got great recognition."

Last season, coaches grew confident enough in Johnson's development that he was promoted to starter in Week 5, and the team released veteran Maurice Alexander a day later. Johnson finished his rookie season with 71 tackles and an interception.

This season, Johnson has done everything possible to stand out. He bleached his hair blond, then dyed it green. But it's his play on the field that has turned him into a burgeoning star.

"It's just reps," Johnson said. "The game is slowing down."

Before the season, Johnson made a point to improve his anticipation. He once studied film for the sake of studying, but he has since narrowed his focus.

"I would study, but I didn't even know what I was looking at, so I would say it's more purposeful studying, what teams based on their personnel," Johnson said. "If they don't have a fast guy, they're not going to run certain plays where they need a fast guy to run, so just being around the game is slowing down."

Joyner, a fifth-year pro and Johnson's quieter counterpart in the secondary, said Johnson's confidence has noticeably grown since last season.

"There's no hesitation in his game," Joyner said. "He's just diagnosing the formation and just great film study. He's a very intelligent player."

Johnson ranks second among all defensive backs in tackles and is tied for fifth in interceptions but did not earn recognition from Pro Bowl voters (a combination of fans, players and coaches).

As Johnson strives to stand out, coaches and teammates have expressed minimal concern about his lack of notoriety outside the team facility.

"He'll get there," Aqib Talib, a 32-year-old veteran who has been selected to six Pro Bowls, said of the barely 23-year-old Johnson.

When asked what Johnson needs to do to gain recognition around the league, Phillips offered a practical solution.

"They need to watch film," Phillips said. "I love my players certainly, but I try to be realistic -- and I think he's a good football player."

Johnson had another idea.

"Just maybe score," he said. "You know offensive players. They touch the ball a lot, and they score, so I mean, that's the only way for a defensive player to get love. I mean, I got 100-plus tackles, but those go unnoticed, so just scoring. I haven't really done that, so I'll try to get it done."