It should come as no surprise that former New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles safety/slot cornerback C.J. Gardner-Johnson is arguably the last top free agent remaining on the market. In fact, he’s the only top-10 player remaining from PFN’s Top 100 Free Agents.
Gardner-Johnson’s in-your-face nature and blunt attitude make him a polarizing player. However, he’s the type of defender that you love to have on your football team and hate playing when they aren’t.
While a versatile safety who can play on the back end, in the slot, or in the box is a valuable piece on nearly every defense in the NFL, there aren’t a ton of realistic options for Gardner-Johnson in free agency at this point, as most of the other safeties have already been picked over. Still, a few landing spots remain for the 25-year-old.
C.J. Gardner-Johnson Free Agency Best Fits
Reunited With the Philadelphia Eagles
It appeared the Eagles and cornerback Darius Slay were on the outs. However, talks on Wednesday quickly led from a sure-fire release to a contract restructure to keep Slay around to play opposite of James Bradberry.
The Eagles’ cap situation is currently a bit tight, but it would be a shame for them to trade for Gardner-Johnson only to lose him after just one season. The young safety slid back into a traditional role in Jonathan Gannon’s defense as if he’d never left the position from when he was at Florida.
MORE: Best Remaining 2023 Free Agents After the Official Start
We’ve seen Eddie Jackson be a ball hawk with Sean Desai as his safety coach and defensive coordinator. Gardner-Johnson could have that same type of impact on the back end. And as a 25-year-old, there’s no reason why Philadelphia wouldn’t want to sign him to a long deal that provides him with fair guaranteed money and allows them salary cap flexibility.
When he was healthy in 2022, Gardner-Johnson proved to be one of the better safeties in the NFL, and his versatility is truly impressive in a league that is becoming more and more positionless with time. Philadelphia already lost Marcus Epps, Javon Hargrave, and T.J. Edwards this offseason. Heading into 2023 with two new starters on the back end is asking a lot.
Bengals Looking for Jessie Bates’ Replacement
Overall, things have been quiet throughout the ranks of NFL media regarding Gardner-Johnson. There haven’t been many whispers aside from the Eagles looking to get a long-term deal done with the safety.
But that hasn’t stopped Bengals fans and players from making their desires known on Twitter. Slot cornerback Mike Hilton tweeted, “@CGJXXIII YO!! It’s smooth out here in Cincy.” Zach Carter also got in on the Twitter action with Gardner-Johnson, but Johnson quickly thought better of things and has since gone dark.
Cincinnati has drafted very intelligently over the past few seasons. Losing Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell is certainly a downgrade defensively, but drafting Cam Taylor-Britt and Dax Hill helps smooth things over. Hill, like Gardner-Johnson, is a versatile player who can play a traditional free safety role because of his outrageous explosiveness but also brings the violence necessary to be a menace coming forward.
Lou Anarumo is one of the best coaches in professional football and will undoubtedly use the two players interchangeably, allowing them to work off one another and check in and out of different calls as motion demands. Hill played a lot in the slot at Michigan, and Johnson’s coverage ability in the slot is well-known. They’d make for a dynamic duo.
In the end, money is what matters. Defense is obviously a massive part of the game, but controlling the variables on offense will always take priority. If signing Gardner-Johnson to a long-term deal forces Cincinnati to let Tee Higgins walk, it’s probably not worth the trouble.
Chris Grier Could Remain Ultra-Aggressive for Miami Dolphins
They’ve already traded for Jalen Ramsey. Why not add another one of the league’s premier trash-talkers?
All of that secondary talent paired with Vic Fangio sure feels like an elite unit when healthy. The Dolphins’ secondary underwhelmed a season ago, but the emergence of undrafted free agent Kader Kohou was a welcome sight.
While Jevon Holland is a more traditional free safety, Fangio’s Cover 6 base makes the two players somewhat interchangeable in their base coverage. Gardner-Johnson also provides the skill set to drop down into the slot and cover in man-to-man situations.
It appears Chris Grier and Mike McDaniel are going all-in on maximizing Tua Tagovailoa’s rookie deal. They picked up his fifth-year option, so he’ll realistically have another two seasons in Miami. If we’ve seen anything from the Shanahan system, it’s that it really takes as much of the responsibility off the quarterback as possible.
MORE: Miami Dolphins Free Agency — A Closer Look at Chris Grier’s 2-Year Plan
While there is a baseline ability necessary to maximize the playmakers at their disposal, it doesn’t take a $40 million man to be on time and accurate over the middle of the field. And while Miami’s iteration of the West Coast passing attack ventures further downfield on average than in San Francisco, it doesn’t take Josh Allen’s howitzer to play quarterback for the team.
With that said, Grier and McDaniel may see an opportunity to strike while the iron is hot. Buffalo is a strong team, and the New York Jets may be trading for Aaron Rodgers, Miami has the pieces in place to be competitive within the division, which makes them competitive in the conference.
Adding Gardner-Johnson could be a home run for the Dolphins.
Why Have the Detroit Lions Been So Quiet in All This?
In 2019, Aaron Glenn said, “It’s limitless on what he can do. He does have the speed and the mentality to go out there and play corner. But he can play nickel, he can play in the box, he can play deep safety. You have fun with players like that, now.”
While the Lions already have Tracy Walker and drafted Kerby Joseph a season ago, Walker has an out on his contract after next season, the NFL is going to more and more three safety personnel groupings, and I can’t imagine a more fun fit than Gardner-Johnson with Dan Campbell.
Adding Cam Sutton may have been the nail in the coffin of this dream becoming a reality, but with all the problems Detroit’s secondary has faced recently, adding as much talent on the back end as possible certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing.