The Eagles surprised everyone earlier this week when they cut Anthony Harris and followed that up by trading for Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. Though there’s some projection involved with him transitioning from nickel cornerback to safety, Howie Roseman did a great job of acquiring a talented player at a position of need for a relatively cheap price.
In order to learn more about Philly’s new defensive back, I thought it’d benefit Bleeding Green Nation readers to get some insider insight on him. And so I contacted Chris Dunnells from Canal Street Chronokeys. Here’s what the representative from SB Nation’s New Orleans Saints blog had to say.
1 – How are Saints fans reacting to this trade? And what letter grade would you give it from a New Orleans perspective?
I think it’s safe to say that the overwhelming majority of Saints fans are not happy with this trade. The emotional side of football and the fans’ overall connection to certain players often times blinds fans from objective views of those same players. CJ Gardner-Johnson quickly endeared himself with Saints fans for high-energy play from the slot/nickel corner position and ultra-high confidence. He sparked a modern meme culture in the Who Dat Nation for his smack-talking both on the field and off the field on social media.
The trade compensation is admittedly lower than I had originally anticipated. In giving the Saints front office a bit of the benefit of the doubt and piecing together various stories from local media, it appears the Saints were in a position where they were going to be forced to trade the talented, young slot corner. But the hang-up was that Gardner-Johnson wanted to be paid as a top tier safety, not just as a nickel corner. When the Saints indicated they were not going to pay him “top safety” money, he – according to reports – participated training camp essentially in physical attendance only. He refused to take coaching and generally was still holding out for the new contract he believed he was worth. In light of the trade compensation heading the Saints’ way from Philadelphia, I’d have to believe that, like the Saints, there just were simply not many teams in the NFL who were willing to offer the type of contract Gardner-Johnson was demanding . That meant the Saints were going to be practically forced to take anything they could get from a team willing to pay up for Gardner-Johnson’s services.
I still place equal fault on the Saints front office for letting the situation get to this point in the first place, so I give the trade a C+. The Saints ideally should have been able to work with Gardner-Johnson to play out the last year in his contract, but that just didn’t happen. Obviously opportunity cost plays into this too, though, and we will potentially look at this trade differently depending on Gardner-Johnson’s new contract and what ends up coming from the two picks the Saints received in this trade.
2 – How would you recap CJGJ’s time with the Saints?
“High energy” is the phrase I’ll keep coming back to. Like most NFL defensive backs, if an opposing receiver makes a catch on him, he’s quick to chalk it up to factors unrelated to his coverage. But if a receiver doesn’t hang on to the ball for whatever reason, even because of something like an overthrow, CJGJ will jump up and celebrate, and his teammates can feed off that energy. He will not shy away from getting in opposing receivers’ faces (check the Javon Wims incident from the 2020 postseason) or even the faces of opposing quarterbacks (the meme of CJ staring down Tom Brady is priceless).
3 – What are his strengths? And do you think these lend well to him transitioning to safety?
4 – What are his weaknesses?
I’m going to answer the strengths and weaknesses together.
That energy I described above is his strength. That coupled with his ability to play decent-but-not-great coverage and be a decent-but-not-great tackler typically kept him best suited for slot play where he could use his physicality to press and guard slot receiver or tight ends off of the line.
Can he transition to full-time safety? I’m not so sure.
He is below average in coverage and can often be tricked by the eyes of an opposing quarterback. He often is forced to rely on his speed and athleticism (unofficial 4.48 40 time) to make up for lapses in coverage. Free safety would likely not be his forte. He’s much better suited for a strong safety role. But I think the most telling point about CJ’s long-term potential at safety is the series of moves the Saints made this offseason.
The Saints lost both of their starting safeties this offseason, with Marcus Williams joining the Baltimore Ravens in free agency and our mutual friend Malcolm Jenkins hanging it up in retirement. Even with this, and knowing that CJ has been in the organization for the past few years, the Saints still decided to bring in two outside veterans as their starting safeties in Marcus Maye and Tyrann Mathieu instead of trusting Garnder-Johnson to handle either spot on a full-time basis.
The Saints front office has been above-average at drafting and developing defensive backs the past decade. Marcus Williams, Marshon Lattimore, Vonn Bell, CJ Gardner-Johnson, PJ Williams, Paulson Adebo… Aside from Lattimore, who was a future Defensive Rookie of the Year, none of those players were taken in the first round. If there is one position where I tend to give the Saints scouting department the benefit of the doubt, it’s with defensive backs. If the Saints didn’t see Gardner-Johnson as being able to be a full-time safety, it’s absolutely possible they are wrong, but smart money says they aren’t.
Essentially, moving Gardner-Johnson to either safety position full time seems like a situation where you could be taking of the game’s Top 5 slot corners and turning him into a Top 15 strong safety. I don’t know how the rest of the Eagles’ roster shapes up, so maybe that would be an improvement to the team, but I definitely think his floor is much lower if he’s shifted to a full-time safety.
5 – Anything to know about him off the field? I imagine there is.
He’s great with the media and great with fans. Eagles fans will love him. I can think of two things worth passing on that Eagles’ fans might not know. First, he’s repeatedly “changed” his name, or rather, the name he wants to be called. He’s been “Chauncey Gardner-Johnson,” “CJ Gardner-Johnson,” and, most recently, “Ceedy Deuce.”
“Ceedy Deuce” brings up the other point I’ll hit. He’s not a terrible rapper, and he typically does so under his “Ceedy Deuce” name.
BLG’s take: Chris does make an interesting point about how the Saints could’ve moved CJGJ to safety and opted not to. But it’s not like the Eagles are moving him to a full-time free safety role. At least, I don’t think they will. CJGJ is probably going to line up in a number of different spots, not totally unlike how the Eagles once used Malcolm Jenkins. I do think there could be a learning curve that needs to be accounted for, especially since it’s not like CJGJ has a ton of time to get used to a new defense. But the low cost it took to acquire him made it an easy move for the Eagles to take a chance on him. It’s not unreasonable to bet on his talent winning out. Methinks CJGJ is going to be a fun player to watch.