Tomorrow night, New York Jets star cornerback Sauce Gardner has a chance to take home the 2022 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. For Gardner, winning this award would follow some already remarkable feats as a Pro Bowler and, even better, first-team All-Pro.
Gardner seems well-positioned to ultimately have this award leading up to tomorrow’s NFL Honors. His competition for it here comes from Detroit Lions edge defender Aidan Hutchinson and Seattle Seahawks cornerback, Tariq Woolen. The two are certainly worthy of being in contention.
Extraordinarily enough, all three players started all 17 games in their rookie years and made impacts from the jump. However, this is an honor that should undoubtedly be going to Gardner when all is said and done. Let’s go over why it should be an easy call.
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Why New York Jets CB Sauce Gardner should be the DROY:
For starters, Gardner is the first rookie cornerback in 41 years to be a first-team All-Pro, which should alone say enough as to why he should win this award. He simply had a generational type of rookie year at one of the hardest positions to play.
Gardner came in and started in all 17 games for the Jets, playing 1,115 defensive snaps (98% for the year). He recorded 20 passes defended, which led the entire NFL. On a per-game average, Gardner averaged 1.2 passes defended. Yet, just another clear reason why this honor should be his. Gardner had the most pass breakups comfortably, too, as the second-most was recorded by Jalen Ramsey, who had 18.
On a game-by-game basis, Gardner had at least two pass breakups four times. He recorded three passes defended twice (Weeks 6 and 7) and had a ridiculous single-game high of four pass breakups in Week 17. Gardner had at least one PD in each of the Jets’ first seven games of the 2022 season. In 12 of the Jets’ 17 games this past year, Gardner got on the board with a pass breakup. Furthermore, in a few of those five games that Gardner went without a deflection, it came as a result of teams simply avoiding him, hardly if ever throwing his way (Week 8 vs. New England, Week 15 vs. Detroit).
Beyond just making plays on the ball by breaking up passes, Gardner did tally up two interceptions in year one as well. Both of which came in divisional wins at home (Week 5 vs. Miami, Week 9 vs. Buffalo). Each of his takeaways led to touchdown drives for the Jets offense in those key home divisional victories.
Gardner was challenged in most weeks matching up with prime wide receivers in the league, whether it be speedsters like Tyreek Hill or Jaylen Waddle — or quick, savvy route runners like Justin Jefferson, Stefon Diggs, Amari Cooper, and Diontae Johnson. Also, bigger, physical wide receivers like Ja’Marr Chase, D.K. Metcalf, and even a tight end in Mark Andrews. Gardner rose up and delivered against all types of pass-catchers, showcasing his complete skill set.
From a coverage standpoint, Gardner allowed a passer rating of 52.5, the lowest in football. In total, Gardner recorded 642 coverage snaps in his first year. Of those reps, Gardner saw 73 targets come his way. He allowed just 33 to be caught, leading to a 45.2% completion when thrown at. Of those 33 catches, Gardner let up 344 yards, making for an average of 10.4 yards per catch and 4.7 per target. Also, just one touchdown was given up all year by Gardner. On a per-game average, Gardner was allowing 1.9 catches and 20.2 yards, pretty special.
Gardner finished plays using his physicality as well. He wrapped up the season with 75 tackles, 51 of which were solo, and he had three tackles for loss. He had one 10-tackle game in Week 7 against the Broncos. Gardner also had one quarterback hit on the first play of the Week 5 game against the Dolphins w,hich led to a safety.
Beyond just the stat sheet, Gardner impressed with both his mental capacity and, as briefly mentioned above, his complete skill set.
Starting with his natural ability, Gardner stands out physically. Gardner has some off-the-charts measurables at nearly 6-foot-3 with 33 1/2″ arm length. Beyond physical gifts, Gardner is talented athletically speaking as well. He has 4.41 speed to go along with incredible quickness and change of direction ability for someone with his height and length. All of these traits allowed Gardner to excel in coverage against premier wide receivers and when it came to making plays on the ball in the air at the catch point.
As special as his on-field production was and as unique as Gardner is physically, his mindset for a rookie cornerback was nothing short of unbelievable. He exuded all of the swagger in the world from the start of the season until the very end. As noted earlier, Gardner never shied away from any prime competition, no matter how great of a wide receiver was lining up across from him. Also, his ability to remain so poised at the catch point and in some high-pressure situations was fantastic. The confident yet cool demeanor of Gardner played a huge part in his rookie-year dominance.
As noted when making the case for Garrett Wilson to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year yesterday, Gardner, too, never once hit a rookie wall. His mental toughness and competitiveness played a huge part in never hitting any slump.
One major appeal to Gardner throughout the pre-draft process was his ability to, with his mental makeup, be a CEO for an organization and bring it instant credibility. Something the Jets franchise needed more than just about any other team in the league. It was a tall task for Gardner, but safe to say, after his first 17 games, in which the tide started to turn for the Jets, transitioning out of the “Same Old Jets,” that being an alpha on and off the field for Gardner was no big deal. Again, this just further proves his elite-level intangibles.
Similar to Wilson, the competitive drive of Gardner, paired with his extreme talent level, just makes his long-term upside that much greater.
Whether it was his unique size physically, terrific athletic ability, or competitive mindset, Gardner displayed in 2022 just how complete he is. His production on the field speaks for itself. Between shutting down top-flight receivers in coverage or exhibiting his poise at the catch point, deflecting the most passes in the NFL, Gardner played dominant ball. He already established himself as arguably the best cornerback in the National Football League as a rookie. Gardner provided Jets fans with so much thrill in just his first year. Hopefully, as the first rookie cornerback to be a first-team All-Pro in 41 years, Gardner takes the Defensive Rookie of the Year award tomorrow.