The New Orleans Saints entered the 2019 draft seeking additional playmakers for their young secondary and knowing that they could lose strong safety Vonn Bell to free agency at the end of the season. As the 4th round of the draft started, one of the most highly regarded safeties of the draft was surprisingly still available. Florida’s C.J. Gardner-Johnson was expected to be a 2nd round pick, with some projections even having him selected late in the 1st round, but had inexplicably slipped to the third day. The Saints pounced on the opportunity, moving up in the 4th round in a trade with the New York Jets to grab Gardner-Johnson with the 105th overall selection.
Gardner-Johnson performed well on special teams and became a bigger part of the defense as the season went along. He appeared in all 17 contests (including postseason), starting eight games, and would play in 52% of the defensive snaps. The 22-year-old defensive back had six tackles for loss among his 49 total tackles, intercepted a pass, forced 1 fumble, had a fumble recovery, was credited with 8 passes broken up, and had 7 quarterback pressures. He emerged as the Saints best cover player in the slot, surrendering only 2 scoring throws when targeted, while also defending the run well in the tackle box.
The 5’11", 210-pound Gardner-Johnson looks poised for stardom. The Saints lost Vonn Bell in free agency, and even though they replaced him with star veteran Malcolm Jenkins, we can expect Gardner-Johnson to be an enormous part of the defense in 2020. He is still the best coverage option that New Orleans has against slot receivers and has the versatility to be effective anywhere in the defensive formation. Gardner-Johnson has the man coverage skills to match up with some of the league’s best wideouts, has excellent read and react abilities off the ball, is a devastating blitzer and effective run defender close to the line of scrimmage.
The New Orleans Saints benefited from one of the biggest steals of the entire 2019 draft. C.J. Gardner-Johnson plays with a chip on his shoulder because of his fall in the draft, and this budding star has the special abilities to help take the New Orleans Saints defense to an elite level.