Free agency for the 2023 NFL season is a little over a month away. Entering the process, the New York Jets have a few positions that could certainly be upgraded.
One, in particular, most Jets fans seem to be hoping for in free agency is a new safety. Few, if any, at the safety position currently set to hit the market are better than C.J. Gardner-Johnson of the Philadelphia Eagles, who will be playing in the Super Bowl this week.
Gardner-Johnson was a fourth-round pick of the New Orleans Saints in the 2019 NFL draft. He spent the first three years of his career with the Saints before a trade to the Eagles just a little over a week before the start of the 2022 season.
Throughout his four years in the NFL, Johnson has played in 55 games. Gardner-Johnson played at least 15 games in each of his first two years. He has played in 12 games each of the past two seasons.
Over the course of his four-year career, Gardner-Johnson has recorded 11 interceptions (2.8 per year) and 36 passes defended (nine per year). Gardner-Johnson has tallied at least seven passes defended in each season of his career. His most for a single season came in 2020 when he had 13 pass breakups. He has had at least one interception in every year of his NFL career. Over the last two seasons, he has made a significant jump in the interception department. Gardner-Johnson had three in 2021 and six this year while playing in just 12 games.
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New York Jets Free Agent Safety target C.J. Gardner-Johnson:
Strengths and weaknesses:
The three games of Gardner-Johnson I studied on tape were from Week 5 (at Arizona), Week 6 (vs Dallas), and Week 10 (vs Washington). In total, 203 snaps. Of those reps, 17 are below, sorted into various categories highlighting different components of his game.
While studying Gardner-Johnson’s game, there was certainly a whole lot to like. He offers a multiple, near complete skill set with not many glaring weaknesses.
- Quickness/Change of Direction
- Man Coverage
- Ball Skills
- Run Defense
- Read and React Skills
- Instincts/Pursuit Angles
In particular, from the strengths, before reviewing the film cutups, the versatility of Gardner-Johnson was very apparent in the three games studied. Whether it be single-high free safety, in the box as a strong safety, in the slot on receivers, playing in split two-high looks to both the tight end and open side of the formation, or over tight ends on the end of the line of scrimmage, among other alignments, Gardner-Johnson presents immense positional flexibility.
In terms of weaknesses, the lone concern to Gardner-Johnson’s game is inconsistent tackling. As noted in the strengths, Gardner-Johnson takes good pursuit angles and is willing to get physical. There are instances on film of sound tackling. He just did not always wrap up as a tackler and finish plays consistently.
New York Jets Film Room: S C.J. Gardner-Johnson:
In this first clip here, you will see Gardner-Johnson (#23) comes down in the box as the strong safety. His responsibility is to cover the Cardinals’ versatile wide receiver, Rondale Moore, who operates out of the backfield.
Early in Moore’s route, Gardner-Johnson does a good job of remaining patient and staying square, waiting until Moore commits one way. Once Moore does break out around the 27-yard line, you can see some of Gardner-Johnson’s burst as he breaks down.
He takes a clean angle and delivers a physical hit at the point of contact, causing an incompletion. Moore, of course is not a running back, but seeing Gardner-Johnson play man on a skill player out of the backfield is great, as it is something the Jets could certainly use from a safety.
On this rep, Gardner-Johnson is lined up in tight man on tight end Zach Ertz, who is the number three to the trips side of the formation (bottom).
Gardner-Johnson plays with fairly heavy inside shade. Ertz quickly works against that as the initial step of his release is outside. Perhaps, Ertz could have gained a bit more ground here to really threaten Gardner-Johnson more. However, Gardner-Johnson is able to display some of his quickness as he does not overly commit to Ertz’s outside release. From there, Gardner-Johnson does a good job of changing his direction and getting his hands active, which allows him to stay in phase.
No different than running backs, as stated on the first rep, the Jets need a safety who can play man coverage on tight ends as well.
In two plays, we’ve seen Gardner-Johnson’s man coverage ability on both a tight end and versatile weapon operating from the backfield, now, on a top-flight receiver in the slot.
On third down, Gardner-Johnson is matched up fairly tight on CeeDee Lamb up top, the number three to the trips side. Knowing he has safety help over the top with the Eagles in two-high, Gardner-Johnson plays with outside leverage. Again, he exhibits good patience and the ability to stay square, waiting to open up his hips once Lamb commits in a direction.
From there, he quickly applies his hands. With safety K’Von Wallace (#42) over the top and inside, Gardner-Johnson does a great job with his positioning staying underneath and outside of Lamb all throughout the route.
Gardner-Johnson’s versatility is proven here in just three plays. Whether it be on slot receivers, tight ends, or running backs, Gardner-Johnson can play man-to-man on anyone. It is a skill that the Jets’ secondary needs and can potentially take their already elite defensive backfield over the top.
In the first few reps, we saw Gardner-Johnson playing closer to the line of scrimmage. Now, we see even more of his positional flexibility as he operates from depth. In certain reps, as a single-high center fielding free safety, showcasing speed and range, yet another set of skills in a safety that the Jets could use.
In this play below, Gardner-Johnson is the post safety. He backpedals and gains more depth off the snap. He reads Cooper Rush all the way and breaks as soon as he winds up. Thanks to a great pass rush, the ball is severely underthrown. Nonetheless, Gardner-Johnson does a fantastic job of playing it in the air.
As much as anything, Gardner-Johnson shows his ability to cover ground by working from the middle of the field to finish a play outside the numbers. His ball skills, another theme throughout this article, are evident here as well.
The Eagles are in a split safety look here and go quarters with Gardner-Johnson playing to the open side (opposite TE).
He backpedals off the ball once again before opening up to make sure he gets over the top of Terry McLaurin. Gardner-Johnson takes a great angle and shows his ability to quickly cover a lot of ground, making a play on the ball at the catch point to help break up the pass.
In terms of Gardner-Johnson’s speed, the play below was one of the best reps in, which he showcased it throughout the three games reviewed.
Operating from the middle of the field as the free safety, but not from too much depth, Gardner-Johnson flashes speed chasing toward the sideline to finish this play here.
Gardner-Johnson has the speed and range to cover a lot of ground on the backend for the Jets.
Turnovers were hard to come by for the Jets’ defense throughout the second half of 2022 (two in the final seven games). One huge plus to Gardner-Johnson’s game is his ability to not just play in man and cover a lot of ground but to finish plays with the ball in his hands. Even, as we’ll see below, in some tough situations.
In the play below, Gardner-Johnson works as the single-high safety. Throughout the rep, he displays some of his effortless hip fluidity, changing directions a few times as he gains depth. Gardner-Johnson does a good job of keeping his eyes in the backfield on Kyler Murray. It allows him to once again quickly flip his hips and get in position to make a play as the ball is let go.
Gardner-Johnson sees the ball in the air all the way and, despite some traffic at the catch point, is able to haul it in.
Gardner-Johnson plays to the open side of the formation and to the boundary side of the field in quarters here.
He side-shuffles off the ball to pick up depth. Gardner-Johnson is not stressed by any route here. But, his ability to go up and get the football as it gains a ton of air time and maintain possession of it through the ground here is impressive.
The range and ball skills are both on display in this next play from Gardner-Johnson. He is playing to the field side in the Eagles’ two-deep safety look.
He initially backpedals to stay over the top. Then, flips his hips to break as he sees Taylor Heinicke release. Gardner-Johnson turns on the jets as he notices McLaurin has gained a step. Again, he plays the ball in the air perfectly, timing his jump and coming down with it in a contested catch situation.
The ball skills Gardner-Johnson possesses are a huge appeal for a Jets defense in need of more takeaways.
There were situations where Gardner-Johnson was deployed in the box and needed to fit the run. As noted in his strengths, he is definitely willing to get physical.
Here, he plays to the strong side of the formation. Gardner-Johnson fills his gap and keeps his eyes on Tony Pollard throughout the play. He does a great job of getting physical with Noah Brown at the initial point of contact. Then, competing to work off the block to finish the play.
In this play, Gardner-Johnson works his way into the box. Off the ball, he moves downhill to fill space. He shows a willingness to take on a block to help plug the run and finishes the rep.
Gardner-Johnson cannot only just play the pass but the run too.
In terms of play recognition and reading and reacting to things, Gardner-Johnson did some stellar work. As a result of his quality instincts, Gardner-Johnson showed an ability to consistently take sound pursuit angles.
In the play below, Gardner-Johnson aligns as the field safety in the Eagles’ split safety look. He reads the run fake in the backfield, and Murray’s release then pursues. Gardner-Johnson takes a good angle downhill. As important as anything, though, after stopping at the 40-yard line, Gardner-Johnson knows there is space for Moore to the outside. Gardner-Johnson quickly shifts toward the sideline and forces Moore to cut back upfield into Eagles defenders.
On this rep, Gardner-Johnson works on the boundary side of the field in the Eagles three deep look.
He side-shuffles to pick up depth. As Moore catches the ball and works upfield, Gardner-Johnson once again shows a feel for space and an ability to funnel a ball carrier toward traffic.
As Moore turns, using his vision, he initially widens out, seeing the space at the bottom. However, Gardner-Johnson knows where his help is. Gardner-Johnson takes the outside running angle from Moore, which forces him to turn upfield and get stopped.
Gardner-Johnson works in the box to the tight end side of the formation in the play below.
He, along with James Bradberry, does a solid job of working laterally and containing the outside, which forces Pollard to cut upfield. Gardner-Johnson finishes the play.
As noted earlier on, Gardner-Johnson’s tackling, while great on some reps, as shown throughout the article up until this point, happens to be inconsistent. In both the Cardinals and Cowboys games studied, there were some misses. The misses do not come from poor pursuit angles or a lack of physicality though.
In this play below, Gardner-Johnson takes a safe angle working to the sideline, as shown by the sideline copy. On his tackle attempt, he goes too high and outside while trying to bring Jake Ferguson down in space, ends up missing the tackle, and allows a touchdown.
However, as stated, Gardner-Johnson has the ability to physically finish plays.
Here, he works from the middle of the field, reads and reacts to the screen well, takes a good angle to contain McLaurin, goes lows, and wraps.
In the final play of this film review, Gardner-Johnson works down to the box pre-snap. He locates Antonio Gibson and keeps his gap all throughout the play. As Gibson cuts back and works vertically, Gardner-Johnson gradually moves to meet him in space, has a good angle, goes low, and drives.
As seen, Gardner-Johnson has moments of great tackling but has to be more consistent.
All in all, there is a whole lot to be excited about with Gardner-Johnson. He just turned 25 years old in December and will be going into year five of his career, likely entering his prime.
Gardner-Johnson has played on a high level and would qualify as a great signing should the Jets land him. He will get at least three and possibly four years on his second contract. The average annual salary seems slated to be anywhere from $11-15 million per year. For the Jets, that could be well worth the price.
They have an obvious need for a safety. Gardner-Johnson provides all of the traits that the Jets need. His versatility, man coverage on slots, tight ends, and running backs, his range, ball skills, and ball production would all help this already dominant Jets defense. It will be fascinating to see if Gardner-Johnson hits the market and if Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh make a strong play for the young safety.