C.J. Gardner-Johnson Free Agency Predictions: Landing Spots Include Dolphins, Lions, and Bengals

As one of the most versatile players in the NFL, where could safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson land in 2023 NFL free agency?

Few safeties in the NFL are more versatile than C.J. Gardner-Johnson. In a league trending more and more multiple and positionless in the secondary, somebody who can play in the slot or on the back end isn’t simply a luxury at this point. It’s a necessity.

The safety position has never been more critical to the success of NFL defenses. The rise of Quarters forces safeties to cover No. 2 receivers from depth. They must be able to process route combinations and fit the run from the third level.

Gardner-Johnson can and has done it all during his four-year career.

C.J. Gardner-Johnson Free Agency Predictions

Gardner-Johnson played safety at Florida. Many draftniks believed he was a first or second-round talent, but he fell to the New Orleans Saints in Round 4 at pick 105.

He’s played over 200 snaps on the defensive line, over 400 in the box, 450+ at free safety, over 1,500 in the slot, and more than 100 as an outside cornerback. Gardner-Johnson’s a difference-maker wherever he lines up, which makes him a scheme chameleon.

Miami Dolphins Could Use Safety Help

Jevon Holland is an outstanding football player. He will thrive with Vic Fangio, much like Justin Simmons was able to as the more free safety type. But when Fangio was in Denver, he had multiple talented safeties, and Miami shouldn’t shy away from possibly bringing Gardner-Johnson back to the state of Florida.

The Dolphins were ravished by injuries in the secondary in 2022. Having someone on the roster who can wear all of the hats solves multiple issues. Brandon Jones is a serviceable safety who can really attack downhill but cannot cover the way Gardner-Johnson can. And as we all know, coverage is king.

Detroit Lions Add Another Kneecap Biter

The most obvious fit for Gardner-Johnson is with Dan Campbell and Aaron Glenn in Detroit. Campbell was the assistant head coach in New Orleans until 2020, and Glenn was Gardner-Johnson’s DBs coach during his first two NFL seasons.

In 2019, 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.”

Detroit also happens to need a player who can complement Tracy Walker at safety. Gardner-Johnson’s ferocity can’t be a turnoff for the old-school, hard-nosed, former tight end-turned-coach in Campbell.

Walker only played three games last year before missing the rest of the season with an injury. If the pair remains healthy in 2022, the Lions’ defense could be the cream of the NFC North crop for the first time.

The Cincinnati Bengals Pay To Replace Vonn Bell

The Bengals have other needs to address, but both of their starting safeties are free agents this offseason. Dax Hill will almost surely slide into Jessie Bates III’s free safety role, but if Cincinnati wants to really solidify their second safety spot, Gardner-Johnson would be the man.

It will be fascinating to see how different his market will be from Bates’. The idea of adding him only makes sense if he’s available for about 70% of what Bates could be had for. Bates shouldn’t want any less than what Derwin James got. If Gardner-Johnson comes in around $13-$14 million, it makes sense.

But owner Mike Brown is notoriously cheap. In an interview with Colin Cowherd, former Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said, ““We didn’t have bottled water or Gatorade and when we first got it, guys would be taking bottles of Gatorade home.”

C.J. Gardner-Johnson Market Value, Career Stats, and More

According to Spotrac, Gardner-Johnson’s market value sits at $13.3 APY. That would make him the 10th-highest-paid safety in the NFL. That seems a bit low, considering how NFL contracts seem to work. Gardner-Johnson is probably already a top-10 safety to some, and the “next up” mentality toward contracts probably make him a $15 million player.

The salary cap is skyrocketing. We are in the infancy of the new TV rights deal. The cap rose $16 million from 2022 to 2023. The league can claim it’s partially a makeup from the down years during the pandemic, but teams will likely spend understanding they’re not cash-strapped moving forward.

C.J. Gardner-Johnson Career Stats

  • Games Played: 55
  • Games Started: 43
  • INTs: 11
  • Passes Defensed: 36
  • Sacks: 4
  • Tackles: 228
  • Tackles For Loss: 20
  • QB Hits: 14

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