Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner shouldn’t be as good as he is already. And the New York Jets‘ defense damn sure shouldn’t be as good as they are less than nine months from finishing dead last in defensive efficiency. But don’t tell them that. Don’t tell Sauce that it’s supposed to be hard playing cornerback in the NFL. And don’t tell the Jets’ defense they shouldn’t be able to turn things around so quickly.
The Jets have won five of their last six and legitimately look like a contender in the AFC. A season ago, they won four games and were horrific on offense and defense. Gardner is a massive part of the Jets’ defensive success, and he currently leads the Defensive Rookie of the Year odds at -110. He’d be just the third cornerback to win the award since 1998.
Cornerbacks rarely win DROY. It’s a complicated position to play, and it’s nearly impossible to amass enough statistical relevancy at a position that rarely has a chance to add to the box score. But Gardner is earning his place at the top and is being helped by a lackluster season from other top defensive rookies.
But let’s get into why he’s so good.
Who Is Sauce Gardner?
Gardner was Pro Football Network’s seventh-overall prospect and the top cornerback prospect on the board. I joked that any cornerback nicknamed “Sauce” was the top dog until I had to evaluate them personally. And while I was likely wrong admiring Derek Stingley Jr. more, the draft crew at PFN knew better!
The CB position is entirely reactionary. Space is the enemy, and a professional cornerback must cover that space without being too physical with the opposition, or the zebras will be sore the next day from throwing yellow flags on the field. Athleticism isn’t everything at the position, but it’s arguably the single greatest indicator of success for a cornerback.
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Gardner didn’t do much testing during the Combine or pro days, but he did quell some concerns about his long speed by running a 4.41 40-yard dash. Pair that with a 95th-percentile wingspan, 97th-percentile arm length, and 96th-percentile height, and you’re looking at a fantastic athletic starting point.
Draft analyst Ian Cummings said it best in Gardner’s 2022 draft scouting report when describing his execution beyond the traits.
“He’s always incredibly alert and aware of his surroundings. He can change initiative at a moment’s notice, and he owns the wherewithal to position himself well against 2-on-1 opportunities for the offense. The Cincinnati CB is exceptionally quick to read and react to passes.”
Sauce as a Pro
That is exactly what is most impressive about Gardner’s game as a pro. His recovery on fourth down against the Bills was outrageous. Gabe Davis is one of the best downfield receivers in the NFL, and Sauce caught up to him like he was running in mud.
Not running through Davis as he slowed down a bit to attack the football was even more impressive. He got his right hand up to defend the catch point, which ultimately led to a difficult one-handed opportunity that Davis couldn’t finish.
Gardner’s ability to mirror receivers in and out of breaks and defend vertically is all well and good, but it’s his mind that is so darned impressive.
The Jets run their fair share of press-man coverage. And Sauce has been outstanding in every area of the game, but it’s his ability to process route combinations in zone coverage that makes him a complete cover cornerback.
The interception in and of itself is nothing special. Only insert the deity of your choice and Josh Allen knows what was going on in his head when he decided to throw that football. However, it’s a good example of how well Gardner plays the midpoint in Cover 2.
Gardner’s similarly adept when passing off and picking up routes in his area of responsibility when playing Quarters, and he’s heady when on the backside of Cover 3 and Quarters looking to defend the post from the opposite side.
Cornerback play is almost exclusively about how well a player is able to do their job in coverage. Many cornerbacks in the league today — and throughout league history — have been big-time “business decision” guys. Sauce is a bit more physical than that, and that’s something we should all welcome.
Of all cornerbacks who have played at least 307 snaps, Gardner ranks 10th in lowest missed-tackle percentage. Opposing QBs have completed just 20 of 46 targets against Gardner, the third-lowest rate in the entire NFL. He ranks 13th in yards per reception against at 9.5, and many of the defenders with better marks play primarily in the slot.
What I’m trying to say is that Gardner isn’t just the best rookie cornerback — he’s one of the top cornerbacks in the entire league. It’s helped the Jets’ defense propel into the top 10 in nearly every efficiency measure there is.
Gardner’s Versatility in Coverage
Against the Bills, Gardner aligned against just about everyone. Stefon Diggs got the best of him on the first play of the game, but Gardner was otherwise outstanding. And it’s his reactive athleticism and discipline in technique and assignment that allows him to cover just about anyone in the NFL.
Many taller cornerbacks struggle to mirror smaller, shiftier receivers. But Sauce doesn’t have those same issues. His intelligence, foot speed, and stride length let him stay on the hip pocket of smaller receivers in man coverage. Gardner’s physicality is menacing when he gets his hands on them, too. He can end routes before they begin.
Gardner also holds up well against tight ends. His physicality and length allow him to crowd TEs along the route stem, and his athleticism lets him stick with them through route breaks. Add in his intelligence in zone coverage, and there is nothing a defensive coordinator could ask of Gardner that he couldn’t accomplish.