Making the case for Gardner-Johnson
Gardner-Johnson has proven to be one of the most talented safeties of his entire draft class. His versatility to cover slot receivers and tight ends in combination with his ability to play single-high safety is what makes the 21-year-old so dynamic in the NFL.
The league has started adapting to having a slot/safety hybrid role which is precisely what Gardner-Johnson offers a team. His skill set is very similar to newly-signed Kansas City Chiefs defensive back, Tyrann Mathieu, who was just awarded $26.8 million guaranteed this offseason. Gardner-Johnson recorded 22 coverage stops this past season, according to Pro Football Focus, which reiterates how effective he is as a defender.
It’s hard to look over how dominant Gardner-Johnson has been in coverage during his two-year stint as a starter. The dominant safety only allowed 43 receptions for 405 yards, one touchdown, four interceptions, and nine pass-breakups in a total of 1,288 snaps in that two-year time frame as a starter on the Gators’ defense. The versatile defensive back has also flashed signs of his pass rush abilities, tallying up four sacks, and 15.5 tackles for loss during his collegiate career.
Gardner-Johnson can instantly come in and make an impact immediately for the Eagles, which warrants the usage of the team’s first-round pick. Philadelphia used the third safety in 64 percent of the team’s defensive snaps in 2018 and 60 percent the season prior when the team was victorious in the Super Bowl 52.
The very talented defensive back has superior vision and range for the football which also benefits his ability to diagnose a run play and break it up. Gardner-Johnson posted a career-high 27 run stops in 2018, and it’s easy to see why.
Plugging Gardner-Johnson in year one gives the Eagles more leverage to line Jenkins up in the box safety role where he spent 513 snaps in 2018 (including the postseason), while he continues to play at a high level, and still allows the team to have a reliable defensive back in coverage.
The loss of former middle linebacker, Jordan Hicks, in free agency could dictate an increase in Jenkins box safety snaps to aid a questionable linebacker unit. These holes again propel the argument for not only drafting a safety early for the Eagles but adding one of the top-tier prospects of the class due to the crucial playing time that defensive back will inherit, which is just more reasoning to obtain Gardner-Johnson’s services.
What also intrigues when thinking about the potential of adding Gardner-Johnson to Philadelphia’s secondary — the defensive back’s natural ability in zone coverage which is the scheme the Eagles utilize. While lining up at slot cornerback for the Gators last season, Gardner-Johnson saw a total of 312 snaps, 54 targets allowing 31 receptions on a 57 completion percentage for 261 yards, one touchdown, four interceptions, and 8.4 yards per reception on a 45.4 passer rating when targeted.
Gardner-Johnson was a former cornerback in high school before becoming a safety at Florida, and his natural coverage abilities shine through on film.