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Saints hoping Chauncey Gardner-Johnson answers nickel cornerback question

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It appears Gardner-Johnson will be playing in the slot alongside Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins

NFL: Preseason-New Orleans Saints at New York Jets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

One of the major questions for the New Orleans Saints heading into the 2020 season appears to be answered — at least in theory. According to Nick Underhill, last week, Saints defensive back coach Aaron Glenn said that sophomore cornerback Chauncey Gardner-Johnson will be spending a lot of time in the slot as a nickel cornerback for New Orleans in 2020.

That should come as welcome news for Saints fans. It’s not surprising to see Gardner-Johnson earn more reps next season. He got significantly better as last season progressed, both on defense and special teams. He defended eight passes last year, and he had an interception as well.

Gardner-Johnson’s presence in the slot will lessen the need to have P.J. Williams on the inside, and the Florida product also adds welcome depth to the Saints’ secondary.

The Basics

  • Height: 5-feet-11-inches
  • Weight: 210 pounds
  • Age: 22

Where Gardner-Johnson can really stand out as a slot corner is in his size. He’s a big player who can lay down a hit over the middle. He also has the speed and agility to hang with shiftier slot receivers.

His size also allows Gardner-Johnson to be very effective in the running game. The big-bodied corner played well in the box and just outside of the tight end last season, showing a surprising aptitude for gap control. To read more about that, you can see my article on the Saints’ linebacker situation.

So, how does that translate to playing in the slot?

On this play, Gardner-Johnson did something really simple on third down that should have Saints fans really excited: Basically nothing. Defensively, Dennis Allen dials up a Cover 2 Man defense, in which Janoris Jenkins and Marshon Lattimore stay on their receivers and the safeties are responsible for the middle third of the field. The Vikings, meanwhile, are running a skinny post fly on the top and an in route on the bottom.

Throughout all of this, Gardner-Johnson is responsible for the far sideline flat.

That role, of course, becomes very responsible very quickly. P.J. Williams, who is responsible for Cook, gets lost in a crowd and can’t get across the formation in time. Gardner-Johnson, seeing this, cheats down to take away Kirk Cousins’ checkdown. If Gardner-Johnson hadn’t stayed home, not only does Cook get the first down but he at least gets into the red zone, and potentially scores if his receivers block for him.

Instead, Cousins is forced to take a sack as his outlet is taken away. The Vikings end up in fourth down, and the Saints force a punt.

Equally important, however, is how Gardner-Johnson fares in man-to-man coverage.

These are the kinds of plays the Saints are looking for out of their slot corners: Good old fashioned mano a mano physicality.

Alexander Hollins is going to run a slant-and-up, trying to get Gardner-Johnson lost in the Vikings’ tight formation, but Gardner-Johnson wasn’t having it.

The only nit-pick I have for this play is that Gardner-Johnson never really gets his head around to look at the ball, but he’s about a step-and-a-half behind Hollins the entire play. Instead, he gets his hands up, doesn’t make any contact with Hollins, and forces the incompletion to bring the Vikings to fourth down.

Having a nickel corner who can play 1-on-1 would be an invaluable asset for the Saints this season. It would allow more blitzing, something Dennis Allen loves to do, and it would allow P.J. Williams to sit in more zone coverage, where he’s more comfortable. Williams generally gets in trouble when he’s tasked with dealing with faster, stronger receivers. Gardner-Johnson can hang with those receivers.

Like many other Saints corners, Gardner-Johnson was not without his growing pains last year. He was guilty of some hand-fighting, and he could sometimes get grabby when he was beat. The Saints were second in the league in pass interference and second in holding penalties at 13 apiece last season, so it likely has something to do with Glenn’s coaching style, but it would be nice to worry less on third down about drive extenders.

Gardner-Johnson was called for three pass interferences in 2019, and another three holds. That’s something that will hopefully be addressed this offseason, as that’s quite a few free first downs given the number of snaps he played.

Ultimately, however, the potential outweighs the risk. Gardner-Johnson’s biggest asset is his physicality, but speed gives it a run for its money. The Saints, of course, got Gardner-Johnson due to a drop in draft after “mixed results” interviewing with teams in the draft. They picked him up on Day 4 when he was expected to be a Day 2 pick.

He rewarded the Saints by growing throughout the season and becoming a viable option for the Saints. While he was often used on third downs, he’ll likely get more snaps next season.

While we shouldn’t expect to see Gardner-Johnson in the slot all of next season, he may well be a go-to option on critical downs due to his performance last year. The Florida product is too versatile to only use in slot, and with Vonn Bell leaving after last year the Saints will undoubtedly want to use him in a similar fashion. Ideally, the defense won’t miss a beat.

The best news overall is that the Saints have their defensive core, and Gardner-Johnson won’t have to do too many roles to duplicate last season. Malcolm Jenkins can play high, while Gardner-Johnson can continue to play in the box and in the slot. He has the talent to do both.

The only concern is, of course, burning out a second-year player by asking him to do too much. Jenkins and Williams provide a buffer for that, but with the talent Gardner-Johnson displayed, it’s better to ask too much than too little. He has the chance to prove a lot of teams wrong heading into the 2020 season. The Saints — and their fans — are hoping that he’ll be able to do just that.


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