Dontae Johnson had a promising end to a challenging 2015 season.
The second-year cornerback started the final two games for the San Francisco 49ers and finished the season with 32 tackles and five passes defended. Johnson's late-season success came at the end of a year when the corner rarely had a defined role among a deep group of defensive backs.
There would be games in which Johnson held integral responsibility in the team's sub packages as a nickel and dime defender. Other times, like a Week 7 home game against the Seattle Seahawks, Johnson did not play a defensive snap.
"It was tough not being able to help the team," Johnson said. "(But) It helped me tremendously and developed me into a better man."
Even so, Johnson never griped about his playing time. Instead, the 6-foot-2 corner made sure he was ready whenever his number was called.
A Week 9 home win against the Atlanta Falcons comes to mind first. After playing just 10 snaps in the previous game versus the St. Louis Rams, Johnson started and played all 64 snaps against Atlanta.
Most of those reps pitted Johnson against Falcons Pro Bowl receiver Julio Jones. Johnson helped keep Jones out of the end zone in the game and held him to just 10 catches on 17 targets. Most notably, the cornerback broke up a pass intended for Jones to save a touchdown and help preserve San Francisco's fourth-quarter lead.
Johnson also played a vital role in the 49ers Week 17 victory against St. Louis, this time on special teams. Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein lined up for a potential game-winning, 48-yard field goal in overtime. Johnson lined up on the left edge of the line of scrimmage, ready to make a break on the ball.
Eric Reid, who was lined up one spot inside Johnson, got off the ball well and forced the protection to collapse inside. That gave Johnson a sharper angle towards Zuerlein.
"I got a good jump on the ball," the cornerback said. "Me and Eric did. That caused the blocker to collapse (on Eric), probably more than he wanted to. I was able to get the edge, lay out and get my hands on the ball."
It was the first time Johnson had ever blocked a kick at any level, Pop Warner included.
"It was huge," Johnson said. "Especially now, playing at this level. Making plays and trying to give your team an opportunity to win is huge. For me to be able to make that play when the opportunity was presented to myself, it's a big credit to my team."
San Francisco's offense capitalized on Johnson's block and the 49ers ultimately won the game on a 28-yard field goal from Phil Dawson. The 49ers fifth victory of the year sent every player into the offseason on a positive note, including Johnson.
The young defender is one of six cornerbacks on the team's roster going into the offseason, and Johnson appears to be a viable candidate to start for San Francisco's next coaching staff.
"I learned a lot this year, from playing a lot at the beginning of the season, to not playing as much in the middle of the year and then coming back towards the end," Johnson said.
"I learned a lot and grew a lot as a player on and off the field."