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Saints defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson is ready to take the next step

Ceedy Duce is far more than trash talk. He’s an impact defender ready to find more ways to contribute in 2021.

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

New Orleans Saints defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson (Ceedy Duce) has garnered national attention for his ability to get under the skin of opposing receivers. He’s even become such a focal point for this that teams have taken practice time to prepare for him. Entertaining as that may be, his game is proving to be a lot more than trash talk.

Wild Card Round - Chicago Bears v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The former Florida Gator was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 2019. He was widely considered a first-round or at least high second-round selection, but fell down the draft board. He finished his collegiate career with 161 total tackles, 15.5 for a loss, four sacks, and nine interceptions. He also added 12 passes defensed and 4.48 speed. Despite all of that, he fell to the fourth round of the draft.

It was reported after the fact that teams expressed character concerns linked to his attitude, but the Saints saw that attitude as the confidence necessary to excel at the position. They drafted him even with safety not being a position of need, though he’d find his niche in the defense regardless.

If you know anything about the Saints, then you for sure know that confidence is hugely important in their evaluation of players in the secondary. Confidence helps a player forget the bad, and when necessary forget the good, so that they can go out there play in and play out to perform up to the best of their abilities. The Florida native has consistently referenced himself in conversations around the best nickel defender in the NFL, and rightfully so.

Over his first two years, Gardner-Johnson has made good on his confidence and proved he can be an impact player. He even led the team in performance-based pay both years. While operating the majority of his snaps from the slot, he’s put up some impressive accolades. Even immediately during his rookie season.

After a terrific sophomore campaign, he was also recognized as one of the top ten coverage players in the league by When targeted in 2020, Next Gen Stats credits him as allowing just a 73.1 passer rating and an EPA of -15.9. Writer Nick Shook also reference his press coverage assignments, with numbers suggesting that New Orleans love his physicality just as much as they love his confidence.

His average pre-snap cushion dropped from 6.6 yards to 4.7, a product of playing in the slot more often. He allowed just seven receptions for 68 yards while recording an interception and four other passes defensed on 14 targets in press coverage in 2020.

While some have focused on punches thrown, trash talk, and even calling his music a distraction, Gardner-Johnson and the Saints have focused on his ability to impact the game.

You can feel the safety’s love for the game and his desire to continue to grow and contribute when speaking to him. His focus is pinpoint, and he knows exactly what to express is most important to him. A running thread amongst New Orleans defensive backs is their attention to the mental side of the game. Gardner-Johnson concentrated on that element quite a bit last time he spoke with media.

“Understanding where to be.” Gardner-Johnson explained. “Understanding not just to be there, but understand why I’m there. Why I’m in the curl flat, or why I’m in the half, or why I’ve got to fill this b-gap. You got ten other guys depending on you.”

Doesn’t sound like the “attitude problems” observed during his draft evaluation have had much of a negative affect on the Saints safety’s selflessness on the field.

When asked about taking the next step in his third year, he turned the focus not just back to his teammates, but his responsibility to them. Now that he grasps the details he’s worked to pick up in his first two years, “Now, it’s about bringing your teammates with you.” he says. Solidly setting himself up with an internal expectation of being a leader for the younger players on the roster.

He has even noted himself as a potential option for the vacant cornerback role opposite Marshon Lattimore, a desire to do whatever it takes to help his team. And he’s not alone in that idea, WWL-TV’s Andrew Doak shared on an upcoming episode of the Locked On Saints podcast that Cam Jordan named C.J. as someone he believed could step into that responsibility as well.

Surely, keeping the young safety where he’s excelled to start his career is likely the most realistic option. But the vote of confidence in himself and from his teammates shouldn’t go without credit, and certainly isn’t without merit.

Regardless of where he lines up in 2021, the constant will be confidence, leadership, and impact. Even if the national focus is elsewhere. Gardner-Johnson’s NFL career may have started with a fall, but his rise has the potential to be meteoric.

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