The New Orleans Saints entered last season seemingly confident about the safety position but with one major looming question: Would free safety Marcus Williams rebound emotionally from the crucial missed tackle on the final play of their last second playoff loss in Minnesota? The 2019 season provided more questions about the young safety's future. Williams' interception and tackle totals both were down from his standout rookie campaign. He was often a step slow to react to plays over the top, and his play was uneven for most of the season. His running mate on the back end, strong safety Vonn Bell, had perhaps the best season of his three year career. Bell once again finished among the Saints leading tacklers, continues to play effectively near the line of scrimmage, and was improved in coverage. Bell is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at year's end though, and the team released disappointing backup Kurt Coleman at the start of the offseason, leaving their depth in question. Chris Banjo is an outstanding special teams contributor, and has given the defense some solid defensive snaps over the last two years, while the team's coaching staff has confidence that Williams will rebound from a disappointing year. Still, the team may look into using a draft pick to pluck a safety from what looks to be a deep class, including today's draft profile of a power conference playmaker.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, S (Florida)
Gardner-Johnson was a high school All-American coming out of Cocoa High School in Florida, deciding to keep his talents in-state to attend the University of Florida. He started 3 games as a true freshman, but appeared in every contest, and intercepted 3 passes (returning one for a touchdown) while recording 32 tackles. He worked his way into the Gators starting lineup in 2017 and was second on the team in tackles with 58, including six for loss, while breaking up 7 passes, intercepting 2, and adding a quarterback sack. Gardner-Johnson had a big junior year with the Gators in 2018, finishing with 71 tackles (9 for loss), 4 interceptions (returning two for scores), 3 sacks, and two passes defensed.
Gardner-Johnson cemented the belief that his athletic ability is on par with the league's better safeties with his performance at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. His 40-yd. dash (4.48 seconds), vertical jump (36 inches), 3-cone drill (7.03 seconds), and 20-yd. shuttle (4.2 seconds) each ranked within the top ten of all participating safeties.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is a versatile defensive back with the coverage skills, deep safety instincts, and the near the line of scrimmage aggressiveness that makes him a invaluable defender. He can pick up bigger wideouts or tight ends man to man in the slot, and possesses the fluid hip turn and change of direction to be a coverage asset. He is also an extremely effective blitzer when lining up on the slot, with a good burst of speed off the edge into the backfield. When he lines up off the ball, Gardner-Johnson shows good recognition of the play in front of him and has good closing speed to the ball. He picks through traffic decisively in pursuit of the ball carrier, and shows good physicality against both the pass and run games. Gardner-Johnson has solid read-and-react skills over the top when lined up as a deep safety, showing excellent recovery speed and the athleticism to make a play once he arrives.
He does rely perhaps too heavily on his athleticism when off the ball, at times giving too much ground, and will need to show better anticipation at the next level. Gardner-Johnson can have problems with quick and shifty receivers, and must improve his footwork in space, something that sometimes causes him problems as a tackler as well.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is a do-it-all type safety that every NFL team craves, and one that could be a consistent Pro Bowl caliber defender. He can be effective anywhere throughout a defense; whether picking up a receiver in the slot, blitzing off the edge, being a valuable run defender near the line of scrimmage, or being a playmaker from a traditional free safety spot. Gardner-Johnson is widely considered to be one of the top safeties in this year's draft, and is expected to be drafted somewhere the late 1st round or early 2nd. A team like New Orleans, who could use another versatile playmaker on the back end, might pluck him off the board quickly if he drops, or perhaps even move up a bit if he is still available into the second round.