Bears CB Jaylon Johnson talks contract, year of change and how ‘it’s OK not to be perfect’


LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Jaylon Johnson is coming off a revelatory season on the field and apparently off it as well.

The veteran cornerback for the Bears picked off four passes, scored his first NFL touchdown, made second-team All-Pro and a Pro Bowl. Not a bad contract year. He was rewarded with a new deal that is guaranteed to pay him $54.4 million.

Johnson, who turns 25 in April, was a second-round pick by the Bears in 2020 and is seen as a rising star. On Monday, he talked about his new deal but also why he says his life changed last season.

“I went to therapy last season for sexual addiction,” he said during his opening statement. “That was the hardest thing for me to open up to my therapist about, as that is something nobody knew about. As I’m shining on the field on Sundays, I’m battling myself to grow throughout the week and in that growth, God blessed me with the best season of my life, so I know that God is with me and he deserves all the honor and glory for where I am today.”

I’ve only been doing this job in Chicago for 21 years, but that was a first for me. I’ve never heard an athlete confess to something that personal in the opening statement of an otherwise innocuous press conference about a new contract. “Sexual addiction” was not something any of us were expecting to hear.

But we’re in the era of athletes being upfront and honest about mental health, so it’s not completely unusual for someone to volunteer their struggles. And yes, it’s a good thing.

It certainly was the headline of the day for me. So, after my peers asked innumerable questions about his past season, his contract and his future goal, I asked Johnson to elaborate. Why did he want to share that personal struggle? Did talking about it publicly — he also had family and friends, including his partner, with him in the room — help take a mental weight off his shoulders?

“A little bit,” he said. “But it’s bigger than me. I want to say, for one, I know I’m not the only one going through it. Two, it’s OK to go through stuff. It’s OK not to be perfect. I feel like people put us literally on this pedestal up here to talk and oh well, we’re human too. We go through things, everybody goes through things, people feel like you’ve got to put a mask on, you’ve got to cover it up. Nah, it’s OK to go through things, it’s OK to seek help, it’s OK to be vulnerable.”

He went on, talking about his religious faith and how God’s “light shines when you’re in the dark.” I asked a foll0w-up about what it was like last season to deal with this problem.

“People talking about contracts, I wasn’t worried about that,” he said. “I was trying to get myself right. For me, it’s bigger than contracts. For me, being who I need to be as a man, to be as a father, as a partner, as a future husband, that’s more important and that’s something that lasts way longer than this podium, that lasts way longer than this platform. For me, putting myself in a mirror knowing who I want to be, that’s more important than all this ‘contract, contract, contract, football, football, football.’ Football, that’s what we do all the time. Football is the easiest thing for me.”

Well, to be clear, he’s the one who talked a lot about his contract last season. The ever-confident Johnson spent much of the year clamoring for a new deal, even asking for an in-season trade if the Bears didn’t want to pay him. But he backed up his demands with his production.

It took Johnson 15 games into his NFL career to record his first interception, which occurred in the second game of his second season in 2021. He then went 28 games without one. Without the takeaways, he was still valuable, but he knew he needed production in his second year with new head coach Matt Eberflus to get paid like he wanted.

In his fifth game of the 2023 season, Johnson had two picks in a win over the Raiders, including a 39-yard touchdown return. He added two more in back-to-back wins later in the season. Picking off passes is, of course, just part of a cornerback’s job, but if you want to get paid like a star, you have to produce. He did and the Bears showed him the money, so to speak.

“We feel like we’ve done a really good job coming to the table strong and showing the respect that he’s due just in terms of his production through his career and really an emphasis on the turnovers he created this past year,” Bears GM Ryan Poles said at the combine.

“I’m so proud of Jaylon the way he improved in the way he took the challenge to be a ball guy, and he certainly did that,” coach Matt Eberflus said at the combine. “He’s a great leader not only in our defensive back room but in our whole defensive room too. He’s really starting to become a really good leader on our football team. So I’m excited about him.”

Things are looking up for the Bears, who are dipping their toes into the early days of free agency, signing a new running back in D’Andre Swift and adding a veteran safety in Kevin Byard. They are poised to draft Caleb Williams No. 1 overall and still have the ninth pick as well. The addition of Montez Sweat last season changed the complexion of Eberflus’ defense and the trajectory of what looked like a disastrous season. It’s an exciting time to be at Halas Hall.

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As for Johnson, he said he wants to be a Hall of Famer, a franchise legend. He wants more interceptions this year, stickier coverage, more accolades and more success. He said the new deal won’t affect him, which, of course, is what everyone says after they get money.

“I mean, the contract changes some people, but I’m not one of those,” he said. “I’m not moved by money. … For me, I still got a lot to prove to myself. The money doesn’t stop the hunger.”

The cliche is true. Money doesn’t buy happiness. Neither does fame. I can’t say what’s going on in Johnson’s head or his life, but he seems to have found a balance in his life and it certainly paid off.

“I had a breakthrough with myself and I had a breakthrough on the football field,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it affected me. If anything it boosted me to be who I know I am.”

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(Photo of Jaylon Johnson intercepting a pass intended for Detroit tight end Sam LaPorta in December: Quinn Harris / Getty Images)





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