Cefalu: Former Utah Defensive Backs Already Shining as Rookies in NFL

Jaylon Johnson and Julian Blackmon are having promising first seasons, as was Terrell Burgess

Posted on October 29, 2020

  By Gianna Cefalu of Dash Sports TV for SuperWest Sports

The 2019 Utah secondary was arguably the best in the Pac 12, shutting down team after team in the regular season.

The only two games where the secondary (and the rest of the Utah defense) fell short were in losses to the Ducks in the Pac 12 championship and to Texas in the Alamo Bowl.

Despite the brutal ending to the season, the Utah defensive backs didn’t go unnoticed by NFL scouts. Jaylon Johnson, Terrell Burgess, and Julian Blackmon have already made waves in their NFL rookie careers, and their futures look bright.

Let’s take a look at what they’ve accomplished so far in their first pro seasons. 

Jaylon Johnson, Chicago Bears

Jaylon Johnson | chicagobears.com

Johnson was the first Ute to get drafted, taken by the Chicago Bears as the 50th overall pick. Johnson hasn’t disappointed, becoming the first Bears rookie since 1996 to start at cornerback in the first game of the season. Johnson was also the first non-First Round Draft pick to start for the Bears since 1983.

The 21-year-old rookie has embraced the challenge, despite his lack of offseason reps and not having any preseason games to prepare. Johnson’s impressive nine pass breakups this season rank third-best in the NFL. The Bears are right in the thick of things. sitting on top of the NFC North at 5-1. Much of Chicago’s success can be attributed to former Arizona Wildcats quarterback Nick Foles, but Johnson has played a key role as well. 

Julian Blackmon, Indianapolis Colts

Julian Blackmon | colts.com

Blackmon has been the most noticeable rookie out of the three defensive backs, having fully recovered from the devastating ACL injury he suffered at the end of the 2019 season. Blackmon didn’t assume the full-time starting role until Week 3, but he has certainly proven himself worthy of the position. For starters, Blackmon is currently rated the highest graded rookie safety by Pro Football Focus.

Blackmon is also tied with the top rookies with two interceptions on the season, including the game-winning pick against Heisman winner Joe Burrow of the Cincinnati Bengals. He is ranked the best among rookies with six passes defended, and has nine total tackles on the season so far. No doubt, Chase Young, the second overall pick, was supposed to turn heads as the best rookie defensive player, and his groin injury has made it unknown just how viable he is to the Washington Football Team. But with Young out of the spotlight, there’s a chance Blackmon could claim Defensive Rookie Player of the Year honors if he continues at this pace. 

Terrell Burgess, Los Angeles Rams

Terrell Burgess | Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

Burgess may not be in the spotlight like Blackmon and Johnson, but he’s had an impressive preseason run. Burgess became a star his senior year at Utah, earning a starting role as a strong safety. Despite notching just 17 career starts with the Utes, his drive and talent landed him in the NFL.

Burgess’ speed and attention to detail stood out to Rams head coach Sean McVay in fall camp. Since then Burgess has recorded only three total tackles on the season, but it’s an impressive start nonetheless, given the depth of the Rams’ secondary. Burgess confirmed what the Los Angeles Rams believed all along, that he is capable of playing in the pros. Unfortunately, in the midst of what was shaping up as his best NFL game to date, against the Bears on Monday Night Football, he suffered a serious injury to his left leg and was carted off the field in an air cast. Burgess has since been ruled out for the season.

Whittingham | utahutes.com

These three impactful players have shown that Utah can produce star NFL defensive backs. It’s a credit to their work ethic, but also to Ute coach Kyle Whittingham, who has created an environment, and hired coaches capable of developing them into players who can perform at the next level. The success of these defensive backs should help attract future recruits by demonstrating what Utah can do for them as a program.

The Ute defense will look much different this year, but that will provide younger defensive backs the opportunity to develop into NFL defenders themselves someday. 

You can read Cefalu’s other sports stories and columns at the Daily Utah Chronicle.

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