Over the next few months, we’ll be breaking down every Jets rookie, including the undrafted free agents. Today we break down Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, selected by the Jets with the 4th overall pick, in detail.
The 21-year old Gardner is listed at 6’3” and 200 pounds and was a consensus all-American and the AAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2021. He was a three-time all-AAC selection and racked up 99 tackles, three sacks and nine interceptions in his college career.
Gardner was a three-star wide receiver prospect out of high school, but had also played cornerback and that’s the position which the Bearcats decided to use him in once he agreed to go to Cincinnati.
He made an immediate impact as a freshman, as he returned two of his three interceptions for touchdowns and posted the 8th best coverage grade in the nation according to Pro Football Focus.
In 2020, he again posted good numbers, recorded three more interceptions and was named as an all-AAC selection for the second year in a row.
2021 saw him take his game to another level, though, as he posted a career-high 40 tackles and three sacks in addition to three more interceptions. He was a consensus all-American and voted as the AAC’s Defensive Player of the Year.
While his size and body of work made him a good prospect who some experts viewed as a potential top-10 pick, it wasn’t until he ran an impressive 4.41 in the 40-yard dash at his scouting combine that he started to be more widely regarded as a possible top five pick. The Jets selected Gardner with the fourth overall pick.
Now let’s take a look at what Gardner brings to the table, divided into categories.
The obvious thing Gardner brings to the table is his extraordinary length. He has a tall, slender build, similar to Robbie Anderson, with long arms and big hands. Despite being listed at 200, he weighed in at closer to 190 at the combine.
His 4.41 time in the 40-yard dash at the combine opened eyes, but he opted not to jump, lift or do the agility drills.
As a sign of how hard he’s worked on his speed and explosiveness, Gardner had reportedly previously posted unimpressive numbers a few years ago while in college: 4.74 in the 40-yard dash, a 33-inch vertical and a 4.25 short shuttle.
Gardner played as an outside corner in college, only dropping into a safety role or playing the slot if there was no receiver on one side. However, he was used in matchup situations in the slot slightly more often in 2021.
Cincinnati purely played man defense at the start of his career with them, with Gardner often employed in press coverage. However, they occasionally started to work in more zone looks in 2021.
Gardner posted outstanding numbers throughout his college career, as he allowed a catch rate of below 50 percent in all three seasons, ending his career with just a 43 percent catch rate when targeted. Impressively, he never gave up a touchdown pass in coverage in his entire career.
He displays an ability to mirror his man, uses his length both in terms of staying on his man and disrupting his routes and to contest at the catch point and showcases good recovery and closing speed:
In his first two seasons, Gardner wasn’t completely flawless as he gave up some big plays like this one:
In addition, both Calvin Austin and Damonte Coxie had big games against him. Each of these players presented a different challenge for him. Austin was small and quick, getting a step on Gardner on a crossing route and turning it upfield for 40+ and then later losing him on a downfield route to draw a flag. Coxie, on the other hand, was one of the few receivers Gardner would have faced with a longer wingspan than himself, preventing him from relying on that advantage as he usually could.
In 2021, Gardner lifted his game to a new level as he gave up just 6.8 yards per target and no 20-yard gains all year.
A review of the film from that year when compared to the film from his freshman season shows that he was much more under control, trusting his technique, with less wasted motion and flexibility in his movements. As effective as he was in those first two years, there were still times where he was scrambling to stay with his man or had to recover from an early mistake.
Many teams opted not to target him much at all, despite the fact the Bearcats had another NFL prospect on the other side in Coby Bryant. When facing off against Alabama and their impressive collection of receiving prospects in the final game of his career in the BCS playoffs, Gardener gave up just 14 yards on four targets.
Gardner was consistent in his college career with three interceptions in each season. While his pass breakup numbers (16 in three seasons) were modest, that was affected by his number of total targets being low and his overall ball production was very good.
As a former wide receiver, Gardner has an ability to attack the ball aggressively and can react well to deflected passes, come down with contested catches or make plays on low throws or close to the sideline.
At the same time, there are a few plays he had where he got his hands on the ball but couldn’t come up with a potential interception.
His length is a huge asset and he knows how to use it, often deflecting the ball at the last moment or leveraging it loose when having been beaten by half a step.
Earlier on in his career there were times where he was too slow to turn and locate the football while keeping contact with his man, although he’s improved at this.
Gardner hasn’t been a particularly productive tackler, although that’s perhaps a sign of how little he’s given up in coverage. His tackle efficiency has generally been solid with only a handful of missed tackles each year.
Nevertheless, he can have lapses in technique. From time to time he will dive in low at a player’s feet, or come in too high so that a player can drive him forward for a few extra yards at the end of the play.
Gardner shows good technique as a tackler, using his long arms to wrap up or extend beyond his frame to bring down ball carriers. He can also make clean hits when coming downhill. He takes good angles and displays good range and hustle in pursuit.
Gardner is a very physical player whether competing for the ball, disrupting his man’s route, fighting off blocks or getting in on tackles near the line of scrimmage. Here’s a good example of him slowing his man up with the jam, leaning on him downfield to keep contact and then relying on his length to disrupt.
Without question, he will at times overdo the physical contact in coverage. He had 12 penalties in 22 games over his first two seasons and that doesn’t account for the numerous occasions where a penalty could easily have been called and he got away with it.
It’s therefore another positive sign that, in his senior year, he only had two penalties, one of which was an offside penalty in the first game. So, over the last 13 games, he only had one penalty:
On the play, you can see how Gardner tries to use his body to leverage the receiver over to the sideline so he has no room to make the play, a technique he often employs effectively, but he makes too much contact as the ball is about to arrive.
Gardner’s run defense grades have been good and he makes good contributions on outside runs, although he plays on the outside so he’s not often involved when runs go between the tackles.
The good grades are a product of the fact he’s a disciplined run defender who will keep contain and has good awareness and an ability to fight off blocks.
Here’s a play where he stays at home, maintains outside leverage and steps up to wrap up the runner on the edge.
As an outside corner, Gardner barely blitzed in his first two seasons, although he did get credited with a half sack. In his final season, they rushed him about once per game on average and to good effect as he had three sacks and a couple of pressures.
This would have been the only forced fumble of Gardner’s career but the quarterback’s knee was officially ruled down.
Gardner’s main special teams’ contributions in college were as a vice on the punt return unit and on the field goal block unit, where he had this touchdown return.
He played some kick coverage in 2021, but did not register any tackles. He’s also rushed punts a few times.
With the Jets, Gardner perhaps won’t play a role on special teams if he has a key role on defense, especially in light of his slender frame.
Gardner’s football IQ and awareness are underrated aspects of his game and perhaps what attracted the Jets to him most of all. His play recognition is good on short passes and running plays, he doesn’t get caught out of his lane or overpursue, his route recognition is good and you’ll regularly see him come off his assignment down the field to get to the ball ahead of other players.
Here’s a play where Gardner comes off his initial coverage assignment to blow up a running back in the flat.
His coaches in Cincinnati were impressed with his savvy, notably praising him for naturally figuring out zone concepts before they had even covered it in practice.
Mental errors are rare from Gardner, but he did jump offside on 4th-and-4 in the season opener last year.
Gardner developed into a good leader, although admittedly Bryant - as the older and more experienced prospect - was the leading voice in the Bearcats’ locker room.
He has confidence and swagger and has impressed coaches throughout his career with his work ethic and tenaciousness.
As noted, he improved his on-field discipline over the past year and personal fouls have not been an issue, although he’s no stranger to trash talking.
Injuries have not been an issue for Gardner throughout his career so far, although with his slender frame, the Jets will no doubt hope he can add some mass without sacrificing any speed.
The Bearcats originally didn’t play any zone concepts, which the Jets will of course look to do, but - as noted - Gardner adapted well to these situations when they were introduced and has the instincts to drop from assignment to assignment.
His ability to play press coverage and jam at the line doesn’t really correspond to a main feature of the Jets’ defense from last season, but it might be something they intend to do more of now that they have someone with the tools to carry it out.
If Gardner ends up starting alongside the much smaller DJ Reed, his length complements Reed perfectly, giving the Jets the luxury of matching up from time to time if there’s a player who is too big for Reed to cover or too quick or experienced for Gardner.
He doesn’t have any former teammates on the Jets’ roster, although one of Cincinnati’s defensive coaches, Greg Scruggs, joined the Jets’ staff as an assistant defensive line coach this year.
You can see the potential in Gardner in the film from his first two seasons. He looks like the kind of lengthy, athletic specimen that the Jets have often drafted in the middle rounds over the past several seasons without managing to develop them into a reliable contributor.
What makes Gardner a top-five pick is his senior year where he proved that he is already well on the path to developing into someone who can actually live up to his incredible potential.
It’s up to the Jets to now continue that process. There have been some very successful AFC East cornerbacks in recent seasons who were physical in the same way as Gardner, namely JC Jackson and Xavien Howard. The most important thing is that the Jets teach Gardner how to stay on the right side of the officials at the NFL level.
If they can succeed in doing that, Gardner surely has the potential to be one of the league’s top cornerbacks within a few years. We - and they - may need to be patient with him, though.