What Will C.J. Gardner-Johnson's Role be in 2021?

An underrated aspect of the defensive success for New Orleans over the last two years, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson should have an even bigger role in 2021.
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The New Orleans Saints were seeking a versatile playmaker for their secondary as they headed into the 2019 NFL Draft.

Many experts had them picking a safety or a cornerback with an early or mid-round selection.

Florida Gators defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (23) intercepts a pass for Michigan Wolverines receiver Nico Collins (4). Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY 

Florida Gators defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (23) intercepts a pass for Michigan Wolverines receiver Nico Collins (4). Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY 

New Orleans got both in one player when they traded up in the fourth round to draft Chauncey Gardner-Johnson with pick number 105.

Gardner-Johnson had excelled as a cornerback, in-the-box safety, and deep safety for the University of Florida.

Projected to go as high as the 2nd round, Gardner-Johnson surprisingly dropped to the third day of selections.

He had 9 interceptions, broke up 12 passes, and scored 3 defensive touchdowns in three years with the Gators.

C.J. GARDNER-JOHNSON - 2019

New Orleans Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (22) returns an interception against Atlanta Falcons. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY

New Orleans Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (22) returns an interception against Atlanta Falcons. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY

Gardner-Johnson saw little action early in his rookie campaign, playing just 22 defensive snaps over his first four games.

He’d see his first extensive playing time during a Week 5 win over Tampa Bay, appearing on 29 defensive snaps.

As the season progressed, Gardner-Johnson would play a more integral part of the defense. He would play at least 70% of the defensive snaps in seven of the team’s last ten games.

Gardner-Johnson intercepted one pass and broke up 9 others as a rookie, allowing 70% completion percentage when targeted. He also forced a fumble, recovered another, had 6 tackles for loss, and added 7 QB pressures.

The former fourth-round pick was voted to the 2019 NFL All-Rookie squad.

C.J. GARDNER-JOHNSON - 2020

New Orleans Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (22). Credit: Nola.com 

New Orleans Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (22). Credit: Nola.com 

Building on the promise of his rookie season, Gardner-Johnson was an even bigger part of the Saints' defensive success in 2020.

He came out of the gate strong, leading his defense with a career-high 10 tackles during an opening day win over the Buccaneers. The New Orleans secondary struggled early last year, but Gardner-Johnson was one of the unit’s most consistent players.

The secondary solidified its play as the year progressed. Their second-year defensive back helped lead the charge, along with cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins and safeties Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins.

The Saints led the NFL in interceptions and ranked 5th in the league against the pass. Gardner-Johnson became the team's top slot coverage option and one of the league's better players at the position.

Gardner-Johnson had one interception and led the team with 13 passes broken up. He allowed only 57% completion percentage when targeted and teamed with Lattimore and Jenkins to contain some of the NFL's deepest receiving corps.

Playing on 82% of the defensive snaps, Gardner-Johnson was a versatile chess piece for defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and was disruptive all over the field. He had 5 tackles for loss and his 66 total tackles were third on the team.

Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey (22) is tackled by Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (22). Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey (22) is tackled by Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (22). Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

An outstanding tackler, Gardner-Johnson was often used close to the line of scrimmage and was a major contributor to the team's fourth-ranked run defense.

He’s also proven to be a disruptive blitzer.  Gardner-Johnson recorded his first career sack in 2020 and added six pressures.

The Saints have used Chauncey Gardner-Johnson mostly as a slot corner or around the line of scrimmage during his two-year career. They may need to use his coverage talents even more at cornerback in 2021.

New Orleans released Janoris Jenkins in a salary cap move this offseason.

Lattimore returns, and the team spent a third-round pick on Stanford CB Paulson Adebo, but questions remain about the depth and experience of the unit.

Gardner-Johnson played both outside corner and in the slot during his collegiate career at Florida. At 5'11 and 210-Lbs., he has the size and physicality for the position, along with the ability to be excel in man coverage.

New Orleans Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (22). Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (22). Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is a physical defender whose versatility and disruptive ability has been an underrated key to the New Orleans defense.

He will play an even bigger role in 2021, with his coverage skills perhaps being the crucial ingredient to continued defensive success.

Follow Bob Rose on Facebook or on Twitter @bobbyr2613.

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