As a Saints fan, what would your response have been if someone had told you that despite the team having a limited number of NFL Draft picks, they’d end up getting a player who is not only considered a huge steal by most respected analysts but actually appears to be capable of becoming an elite-caliber NFL defensive superstar at the safety position?
Chances are you’d have been so happy that they’d have found you many hours later down in the Vieux Carre (a.k.a. the French Quarter), “Second Lining” and twirling an umbrella, celebrating out of sheer Who Dat hysteria.
That’s exactly how every die-hard and passionate Saints fan should feel right now when it comes to the young man some are referring to by the acronym “CGJ” — which are the initials for rookie 4th Round pick and former University of Florida safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.
The Black and Gold were able to land “CGJ” after they traded up 11 spots from #116 to #105 overall (after a making a deal with the New York Jets, who the Saints gave their 5th Round pick to in exchange for the opportunity) to select Gardner-Johnson, who had been one of the top-rated safeties in this year’s Draft Class.
New @Saints DB Chauncey Gardner-Johnson had the draft class' highest grade from the slot among SEC defenders and allowed a paltry 45.4 passer rating on throws into his coverage. #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/txDJyOxa5F
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) April 27, 2019
Johnson had originally been rated a Top 50 prospect coming into the 2019 NFL Draft process, but some “red flags,” including some which reportedly were over alleged character concerns (but were unfounded and never verified), caused him to fall down several team’s Draft Boards.
The notion that he’d somehow manage to fall into their laps all the way down into the 4th Round, however, was obviously something that Saints team brass never anticipated, which made the Cocoa, Florida native, and exciting young play-maker suddenly become a bargain that was simply too good for them to pass up.
Gardner-Johnson had been projected by some analysts to go from anywhere as high as the end of the 1st Round on the Opening Night of the draft, to the early part of the 2nd Round on Day 2. But with this year’s draft class having been deep at so many different positions, the reality is CGJ might have been extremely underrated and definitely was being undervalued.
Make no mistake about this much: based on everything we’ve seen of this young man so far, it’s quite evident that GGJ possesses elite-caliber ball-tracking skills, cover ability, and sound tackling principles and fundamentals.
With CGJ, Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen now has another chess piece to use for his secondary, since Gardner-Johnson not only can play up close to the line of scrimmage as a pass rusher or run defender (9 tackles for loss, three sacks in 2018, but also possesses elite-caliber “ball-hawk” safety skills in pass coverage as well. To that point: CGJ had a total of nine interceptions at Florida, including three that were returned for “Pick 6” touchdowns.
Those skills clearly were on full display to the media in attendance (including Big Easy Magazine) at the team’s Rookie Mini-Camp last weekend, when Gardner-Johnson completely took center-stage during the early portion of practice by first stepping in front of the intended wide receiver on the play and intercepting a pass that would have likely been returned for a touchdown.
Then just a few minutes later, CGJ was “Johnny-on-the-spot” once again, as he managed to tip a pass in coverage on fellow rookie tight end Alizé Mack, that wound up getting intercepted by fellow rookie safety Saquan Hampton
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) May 11, 2019
“I can play any position,” Gardner-Johnson said to reporters after practice had concluded. “They just put me in the right position. It helps me to comprehend the defense and it compliments me because I played the same type of defense in college. I’m still learning it, but I’m taking the process real slow and trying to be as humble as possible, open to anything.”
That was a sentiment shared by the Saints coaching staff, and particularly CGJ’s brand new position coach, Saints secondary/defensive backs coach Aaron Glenn, at the team’s Rookie Mini-Camp last weekend.
“First thing you notice about him is he has a body that’s built to last,” Glenn said during an interview after camp had ended last Sunday. “He’s a good-built, good-looking kid. Secondly, he’s a really good athlete: He has good speed, good stop-and-start, good quickness. Able to play back deep, and able to play in the box – he’s about 210 pounds, to be about 5-foot-11. He can withstand that punishment in the box.”
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) May 11, 2019
Johnson — who grew up about an hour west of Orlando — exploded onto the scene back during the 2016 season as a freshman, as a reserve defensive back and contributor on special teams (8 of his 32 tackles that year came while on coverage units), but eventually he would start 3 times in 13 games played.
He tied for the team lead with three interceptions that year, two of which came in the 2017 Outback Bowl. He was named that game’s MVP, as he became the first freshman to win that honor at Florida since former Gators RB and retired NFL Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame legend Emmitt Smith. Then as a sophomore in 2017, Gardner-Johnson ended up starting in all 11 regular season games for the Gators program, as he posted 58 tackles, 6 TFLs (tackles for loss), 2 interceptions and 7 PBUs (pass breakups).
Then last season as a junior in 2018, GGJ earned his current nickname after he lengthened his last name from ‘Gardner’ to ‘Gardner-Johnson’ as a way to honor Brian Johnson, or “Pops,” who has been a mentor to him personally and has been close to his family since Chauncey was young. Johnson used the name change as a source of motivation and inspiration, and gave a top-notch performance for most of the season, as he started 11 of 13 games played and made 71 total tackles, 9 for loss, 3 sacks, a team-high 4 interceptions and 2 PBU’s.
As a direct result, Gardner-Johnson at first began receiving heavy 1st-round “buzz” leading up to the draft, until those alleged character / attitude issues were initially reported at the NFL Scouting Combine in early March. Obviously, they turned out to be unproven; and as an indirect result of CGJ’s fall into the 4th Round, New Orleans now has unexpectedly acquired a 21-year old elite-caliber defensive talent — and for a the low, low bargain price of a rookie contract — in move that’s been praised by a variety of different observers League-wide.
For a team that's only had two picks, in Rounds 2 and now here in Round 4, the Saints are making the most of them. Erik McCoy at 48 overall and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson at 105 are steals. #NFLDraft
— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) April 27, 2019
Saints safety draws high praise from coaches at rookie camp #nfl: Saints secondary coach Aaron Glenn says fourth-round draft choice Chauncey Gardner-Johnson appears bound for a role on New Orleans' defense as a rookie… https://t.co/wVQHDbeHEK pic.twitter.com/11HJdNtBVk
— NFL Feeds (@nflfeeds_) May 12, 2019
As the Saints head towards OTAs (organized team activities, which are essentially off-season workouts but without pads) in these next few weeks and then eventually into Training Camp in a few months, it’s expected that Gardner-Johnson should make his initial impact as the team’s slot corner in a rotational role with starter Patrick Robinson once the regular season arrives; with 2nd-year player Marcus Williams at the free safety spot and 3rd year veteran Vonn Bell locked in as the starter at strong safety.
But thanks to his very notable talent that the Saints organization managed to nab with a 4th Round pick the very same elite-caliber talent that he’s already shown to everyone just two weeks into his young NFL career, Gardner-Johnson — a.k.a. CGJ”— is poised not only to make an immediate impact for the Saints as a rookie, but also to eventually blossom into a future NFL defensive “superstar”.
And all for the low, low bargain price of a rookie contract, at that. A “steal for real” indeed, if there ever was one.
Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium. He is the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.