IRVINE, Calif. (AP) — Veteran safety John Johnson is returning to the Los Angeles Rams after two seasons in Cleveland.
Johnson has agreed to terms and will officially rejoin the Rams’ roster after he passes a physical Monday. He was at training camp Sunday at UC Irvine as an observer.
Johnson should provide much-needed experience and playmaking ability to the Rams’ defense, which is projected to be one of the NFL’s least-experienced groups around Aaron Donald. Los Angeles has parted ways with six of its top seven tacklers from last season in various cost-cutting moves, including the free-agent departures of starting safeties Taylor Rapp and Nick Scott.
Johnson was a third-round draft pick by the Rams in 2017, and he earned a starting job as a rookie. He was a key component of the Rams’ defense during their first Super Bowl season under coach Sean McVay in the 2018-19 season, and he was Los Angeles’ leading tackler in 2020 after missing much of 2019 because of an injury.
Johnson left the Rams in March 2021 for a three-year, $33.75 million free-agent deal with the Browns. After excelling as a strong safety who frequently played near the box in Los Angeles, he was often asked to move away from his strengths in Cleveland, playing as a free safety with more responsibility in pass coverage.
Johnson, who was released by the Browns in March, was popular with fans and in the locker room during his tenure with the Rams.
The Rams opened training camp last month with an incredibly inexperienced secondary at the back of a youthful defense. Their nominal starting strong safety is Jordan Fuller, whose three NFL seasons were the most in the entire Los Angeles secondary before the club signed veteran cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon in late June. Witherspoon also was the only defensive back more than 25 years old.
Russ Yeast and Quentin Lake, a pair of late-round 2022 draft picks, lead the raw group of contenders for the other starting safety job.
Fuller started alongside Johnson as a rookie in 2020 before taking over Johnson’s role and subsequently leading the Rams in tackles in 2021. But Fuller and fellow starting safety Rapp both got injured during the Rams’ subsequent postseason run to their Super Bowl championship, forcing Los Angeles to bring Eric Weddle out of retirement as a replacement alongside Scott.
Los Angeles largely gutted its roster in the offseason and chose to head into 2023 with remarkably few proven veterans after making almost no significant free-agent signings. The late arrivals of Witherspoon and Johnson indicate the Rams have admitted their youngsters need help, at least on defense.
The Rams also could have concerns about the durability of Fuller, who appeared in only three games last season because of a hamstring injury while they went 5-12 in the worst season by a defending Super Bowl champion in NFL history.
The Rams open their preseason schedule Saturday night against the Los Angeles Chargers.