In the days leading up to the 2020 NFL draft, Jaylon Johnson made a wish. Asked during an NFL Network interview which receiver he was most looking forward to facing in the pros, Johnson didn’t hesitate.
“Davante Adams from Green Bay,” he said. “Yes, sir. It’s just the way he creates separation. His releases off the line. The way he runs his routes. He’s a very elite route runner.
“To go against that caliber of a guy to see how good I am and to see how close I can stay to him and be able to make plays will be big.”
A few nights later, the football gods steered Johnson to the Chicago Bears as the No. 50 pick. Into the NFC North and onto a collision course with Adams. Fate, right?
Now, a year and a half after that eager request, the Johnson versus Adams battle will be in the center of a rivalry showdown Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field, an early-season Bears-Packers game with first place in the NFC North on the line.
Johnson, who tested himself against Adams in Week 12 last season, has come a long way since his rookie year. He continues to gain respect with his coverage ability and overall fearlessness. Still, his regard for Adams remains as high as ever.
“He has good releases, good routes, good hands,” Johnson said Wednesday. “Just one of the top receivers in the league. It’s really about finding the technique to be able to play against him. Because everybody is trying to play the same way against him and everybody has the same result.”
The Cincinnati Bengals certainly didn’t have answers. In the Packers’ 25-22 overtime win Sunday, Adams turned 16 targets into 11 catches, 206 yards and a touchdown. Before the game, Adams said he told his wife and at least one cousin he was about to have a career day. After the win, he felt satisfied with that projection.
“Either I’m clairvoyant,” Adams said, “or I know what I’m talking about.”
During the Packers’ four-game winning streak, Adams is averaging nine receptions and 131 yards. He’s the NFL leader in both catches (42) and receiving yards (579) and is on pace to threaten Calvin Johnson’s single-season NFL record for yards (1,964, set in 2012). None of that includes the three pass interference penalties he has drawn for 41 yards either.
It’s no wonder the Bears have Adams highlighted on this week’s scouting report, knowing quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be looking for his favorite target at all times.
“At the end of the day, they’re going to force the ball to him regardless of if he’s open or he’s not,” Johnson said. “And of course he does a good job of getting open, of giving Rodgers a good window to get the ball to him.”
Adams can be particularly dangerous near the goal line. Since the start of 2016, he has 60 receiving touchdowns in the regular season, 47 coming on passes from inside the red zone. Nineteen have come from inside the 5, including a score Sunday on which Adams ran a basic fade route with a one-on-one opportunity against Bengals cornerback Trae Waynes and won easily.
That was part of a career day and gratifying for Adams no doubt. Still, he wasn’t fully satisfied with his connection with Rodgers.
“We left a couple of (plays) out there,” he said. “But obviously we had a pretty productive day, clicking with each other.
Bears coach Matt Nagy knows the Rodgers-Adams synergy is impossible to account for, noting that the All-Pro quarterback and receiver have “a sixth sense” that allows them to be in sync at almost all times.
“When you have that and (even when) teams know that you have that, it’s still tough to stop,” Nagy said. “Because they’re both elite at what they do.”
Johnson, though, is striving to make his own climb toward star status. Like Adams, he was a second-round pick with obvious hunger to reach his full potential. He has been locked in this season, becoming more devoted to his film studies and making extra effort to take care of his body.
During Bears training camp, safety Tashaun Gipson forecast that Johnson was on the verge of becoming a top-five cornerback in the league. After five games, Gipson is doubling down on that endorsement.
“I said that with conviction because I meant it,” Gipson said. “I watch him. (He’s a) humble young guy. And I’ve seen it.
“When some of my buddies who play for the Dolphins came here (for crossover practices in August), I told them, ‘(No.) 33 is gonna be a star in this league. When y’all see him practice, he’s the real deal.’ And everything I said has come to fruition.”
Gipson continues to assert that Johnson’s developmental leap from Year 1 to Year 2 reminds him of a former teammate from his days with the Jacksonville Jaguars: Jalen Ramsey. “He’s making those types of jumps, man,” Gipson said.
Johnson, of course, will face a series of major tests throughout the season, starting Sunday with Adams. It will be up to him to show he deserves recognition as a top-tier corner.
Three weeks ago the Bears trusted Johnson enough to have him follow Cleveland Browns receiver Odell Beckham Jr. all over the field. Beckham finished that game with five receptions for 77 yards. It remains to be seen whether Johnson will be given similar responsibilities against Adams. But he’s asking for the green light.
“I want to follow the best receiver every game,” Johnson said. “Of course I’m looking forward to the matchup.”
How could he not be? It’s exactly what he wished for before his NFL career began.
“We’ll see what happens,” Johnson said.
Cardinals 2021 report card: Hitters were horrid until they were great
He got better as the season progressed and he turned back the clock to his Arizona days. Goldschmidt earned a 6.2 Wins Above Replacement rating by hitting .294 with an on-base plus slugging percentage of .879. He regained his power stroke while hitting 36 doubles and 31 homers. He drove in 99 runs while batting .331 with runners in scoring position and .321 with RISP and two outs. Goldschmidt played Gold Glove defense at first base and made the rest of the infield better in the process.
He bounced back nicely from his 2020 shoulder injury, earning a 4.2 WAR rating while smacking 34 homers and driving in 105 runs. He battled through some lengthy cold spells — like in August, when he hit just .212 overall — but he was a clutch run producer. Arenado hit .329 with runners in scoring position and .355 with RISP and two outs. Also, his aggressive fielding at third base set the tone for this team’s excellent defense.
His late power surge helped him build a 6.3 WAR rating. O’Neill hit .286 with 34 homers and a .912 OPS overall, but 13 of those long balls came during his last 30 games. His aggressive play, excellent range and strong throwing arm helped him earn 12 defensive runs saved above average in left field. And he stole 15 bases in 19 tries while emerging as one of the sport’s most dynamic all-around players this season.
He ran hot and cold after recovering from his rib injury in midseason. Bader was torrid in July (.357, 1.021 OPS), chilly in August (.151, .421), then scorching the rest of the way (.333, .980). He was a consistent fielding force with 15 defensive runs saved above average while displaying tremendous range in center field. And overall he earned 3.9 WAR while hitting .267 and producing a .913 OPS with runners in scoring position.
The grind finally took a toll on him. He suffered a string of nagging injuries, capped by a sore shoulder. Molina’s .252 batting average was his lowest since 2006. But he remained a clutch hitter, batting .327 with runners in scoring position and .316 with RISP and two outs. He remained a deterrent to the running game, throwing out 41 percent of would-be base stealers. Most critically, he helped guide the pitching staff to a strong finish during an injury-marred season.
His rookie campaign was solid across the board. He was an iron man, making 619 plate appearances in 149 games, and he hit .266 with 18 homers and 65 RBIs. The switch-hitting Carlson hit much better from the right side of the plate (.341, .923 OPS) than the left (.243, .739). Overall he finished strong, batting .293 with an .855 OPS and 17 RBIs in his last 30 games. Carlson had eight outfield assists while fielding well in right field and well enough in center.
Edman’s 30 stolen bases tied for fourth in the majors and he had the second-most doubles with 41. But he hit in streaks. After batting .274 and .278 the first two months of the season, Edman hit .221, .247, .302 and .248 in the next four. His overall numbers as a leadoff hitter were unimpressive (.269, .312 on-base percentage), but he was slightly better (.278, .329) when he came up batting first in an inning. His aggressive play made him an adequate defensive replacement for Kolten Wong at second base.
He injected life into the offense when he replaced Paul DeJong as the regular shortstop. Sosa hit .294 with a .795 OPS as a starter and just .111 as a substitute. He was hit by 17 pitches while standing on top of the plate and a resulting wrist injury limited his effectiveness at the end of the season. His tremendous fielding range earned him eight defensive runs saved in his limited playing time, but he committed a couple of spectacular throwing errors while trying to do too much.
He had a rough go in his first taste of the big leagues, going 4-for-26 in his first 10 games. But later in the season he added much-needed offensive depth, hitting .265 with an .833 OPS over 48 games (including 16 starts). In his limited action he hit .346 with runners in scoring position and he was 5-for-13 with three walks, a homer and six RBIs with RISP and two outs. He had good fielding range in the outfield and he swiped a couple of bases as well.
In extremely limited action he hit .265 with a .322 on-base percentage and two stolen bases. Rondon made his mark down the stretch, going 12-for-38 with three doubles, two homers and six RBIs in his last 30 appearances. He became an effective pinch-hitter, going 12-for-39 overall with three homers and six RBIs. He played first, second and third base, plus both corner outfield sports.
Had he stayed healthy, he might have made an impact as a depth player despite his defensive limitations in the outfield. Injuries to Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill could have opened his door. Instead, Dean went 7-for-30 this season with six walks, two doubles, a homer and seven RBIs between injuries.
Yes, he hit for some power again by smacking 19 homers in 402 plate appearances. And DeJong remained a steady fielder at shortstop. But the former All-Star lost his starting job to Edmundo Sosa by falling below the Mendoza Line with a .179 batting average. He actually made 10 appearances in the cleanup spot, where he hit .162. DeJong was awful again in the clutch, hitting .192 with runners in scoring position and .098 with RISP and two outs.
Serving as Yadier Molina’s backup is a thankless job, since it involves much sitting and watching. That’s why the job fell to various veterans over the years. This role has been a tough challenge for the inexperienced Knizner, who hit just .174 with a .517 OPS. As a converted infielder, he is still trying to improve his catching mechanics too.
He got first crack at the fourth outfielder job and failed. Williams hit four homers, including a couple of bombs, but he batted just .160 with 46 strikeouts in 119 at bats. His running speed didn’t convert into great outfield range. On the plus side, he was 3-for-9 with three walks and a hit-by-pitch in 13 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter.
He was fabulous for the Washington Nationals after exiting in the Jon Lester trade. Thomas hit .270 for his new team with 14 doubles, seven homers, 27 RBIS and an OPS of .852. But as a Cardinal he went 5-for-48 with 17 strikeouts and 10 walks for a meager .384 OPS in limited fill-in outfield duty earlier this season.
After moving on to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Nogowski finally got his first extended look in the big leagues. He hit .261 and drew 11 walks for a .325 on-base percentage. But as a Cardinal he went just 1-for-18 while hitting into some atrocious luck.
After hitting .186 in 2020, he made no discernible adjustments at the plate and hit .169 in 249 plate appearances this season while earning $18.5 million. He hit .193 with runners on base, .171 with RISP and two outs, .179 as a starter and .151 coming off the bench. He capped his nightmarish season by going 3-for-31 with 10 strikeouts from Sept 1 on. In short, Carpenter was arguably the worst player in the sport.