The 2023 NFL free agency period is in full force, and many of the top players on the board have already found new homes. But there’s still a glut of talent on the open market, among which is star safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who most recently finished up a campaign with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Gardner-Johnson won’t come cheap, as he’s one of the most talented defensive backs currently on the market. So which teams have the need, salary cap space, and desire to make it happen?
C.J. Gardner-Johnson Free Agency Best Fits
Gardner-Johnson made an immediate NFL impact upon entering the league as a fourth-round pick of the New Orleans Saints, making the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie team.
His contributions didn’t stop there, as he started 24 games over the next two seasons for the Saints. Entering the last year of his rookie contract and with the team having likely decided that it wouldn’t be able to extend him given its salary cap constraints, New Orleans traded Gardner-Johnson to the Philadelphia Eagles.
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In Philly, Gardner-Johnson was a star. He secured the back end of one of the top defenses in football, helping lead the team to the Super Bowl during the 2022 season. Despite suffering a lacerated kidney in December, the young defensive back co-led the league in interceptions and returned during the playoffs for the team’s run at a Lombardi Trophy.
Gardner-Johnson sits squarely in the top 10 of our Top 100 NFL Free Agents for good reason. So, which teams are the best fits to secure his services going forward?
Can the Philadelphia Eagles Finagle the Finances To Bring Gardner-Johnson Back?
Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman is one of the best at finding ways to structure contracts that keep talented players in town, but even he has his limits.
Now having star quarterback Jalen Hurts due a massive extension and already paying a litany of veterans substantial amounts, Philly had to bid farewell to many of the key members of its Super Bowl run, including Javon Hargrave, Miles Sanders, Marcus Epps, T.J. Edwards, and Kyzir White.
But Roseman demonstrated his salary cap chops in finding a way to retain Darius Slay, James Bradberry, Fletcher Cox, Jason Kelce, and Brandon Graham. Could Gardner-Johnson join the list of those who stayed in the City of Brother Love?
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According to The Score’s Jordan Schultz, “the Eagles are trying to secure a long-term deal with C.J. Gardner-Johnson.” Schultz explained that a deal isn’t done but that the team wants the stud safety back. While Gardner-Johnson may want to return to Philly, it’s likely that he’ll try to maximize his value on the open market.
That market hasn’t always been too kind to safeties, but Jessie Bates III just cashed in on a deal reaching $16 million per year with the Atlanta Falcons, and the former Eagles defensive back could attempt to reach a value close to that of Bates. If he insists on anywhere near that number, Philadelphia will likely have a tough time making it happen.
The Denver Broncos Could Look To Pair Gardner-Johnson With Patrick Surtain II
The Denver Broncos already have one elite defensive back in first-team All-Pro Patrick Surtain II. Will the team try to add to its already stacked defensive backfield?
The trick with this one is that Denver already has significant money committed to the position in veteran Justin Simmons, but there’s no denying that pairing Gardner-Johnson with Simmons and Surtain would give Denver one of the most feared secondaries in the league.
Aaron Wilson of KPRC2 reported that the Broncos are “among the teams with interest” in the young DB, so there’s a possibility of seeing such a strong backfield take shape in the Mile High City.
Denver has just over $11 million in cap space, per Over the Cap, and there’s room to clear more if the team trades Courtland Sutton, as has been floated around, or restructures contracts for the likes of Simmons or Randy Gregory.
The Cincinnati Bengals Have a Need at Safety After Two Departures
The Cincinnati Bengals lost both Jessie Bates III and Von Bell in free agency, so the team has a need at the position.
Sure, 2022 first-round pick Dax Hill will slide into a full-time role, but pairing him with an established veteran would be smart for a team looking to win right now.
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To be fair, the Bengals did sign Nick Scott, who saw his first season as an every-game starter with the Los Angeles Rams last year, but his three-year, $12 million deal doesn’t preclude the team from grabbing a star do-everything DB like Gardner-Johnson.
Cap space? The Bengals have it. The team is currently sitting in the top 10 in the NFL in available space. Lucrative deals for Ja’Marr Chase and Joe Burrow are on the horizon, and that must be considered. But if Gardner-Johnson isn’t getting the substantial investment he’s looking for on the open market, Bengals DC Lou Anarumo will find a space for him in the team’s backfield.