The popular New Orleans slot defender was dealt to Philadelphia on Tuesday ending four weeks of back-and-forth negotiations with both sides conceding they are too far apart on the former Florida Gator’s new deal, to the tune of $4 million dollars as reported by Nola.com’s Jeff Duncan. The compensation package accepted by Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis was the Eagles 5th round pick in 2023 and the worse of two picks 6th round picks in 2024. New Orleans’ 7th round 2025 pick also goes to Philly with Gardner-Johnson. For a New Orleans defense that was heavily relied upon to get to 2021’s 9-8 mark and just miss the post-season (LA was unable to defeat San Francisco in final game of the season after taking a 14-point lead into halftime which would have gotten the Saints into the post season through the backdoor as a wild card), this is not ideal, and the compensation is considered below market for a slot corner of Gardner-Johnson’s talent.
Who steps in for “Ceedy Deuce”?
Stepping into the role there appear to be several viable candidates already on the roster. The splashy free agent signing of Tyrann Mathieu “the Honeybadger” who played his college ball in state at LSU and comes over as a Superbowl champion from Kansas City would be a good fit though there is a case Mathieu, at 30 years of age, might be better suited as the backfield ball hawk and playmaker or safety blitzer, which is how the Chiefs and Texans played him making for multiple Pro Bowls for those seasons. PJ Williams is also a suitable fill-in though his 6’0, 200 lb frame will make opposing receivers think twice about crossing routes. On the same hand, he might not be as effective against the quick slant underneath against smaller, faster receivers. Basically, if the offense is looking for quick yards underneath for a 1st down, Williams might not be the defender you want manning up at the line of scrimmage. Bradley Roby, I believe would be the choice for the significant amount of press coverage the secondary has been showing so far in the preseason. Roby, also 30 years old, is a crafty veteran who excels at man-to-man, press coverage inside 10 yards. There is also the rookie, Alontae Taylor out of Tennessee who was taken by the Saints 49th overall. Taylor’s physical abilities are off the charts, especially speed where he clocked the fastest 40 yard dash time of the combine of the current secondary roster (4.36 seconds). He’s big, very fast and has great football instincts, to quote the team page (neworleanssaints.com). While I do not disagree with the team’s assessment, he is still a rookie and did not start playing in the secondary until his freshman year as a Vol. Prior to that he was a quarterback in high school and recruited as a wide receiver in college. He will already be at a learning curve for the speed of the NFL and also behind as a regular defender. Justin Evans who was let go by Tampa Bay during the 2020 season is also a possibility. The rival Bucs cut Evans after he struggled to stay on the field in 2018 due to a foot injury, then sitting out on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list all of 2019 with a ruptured Achilles tendon. He recovered from both injuries in 2020 and finally landed a one-year deal with New Orleans in the offseason. He has a reputation for wanting to put big hits on ball carriers. He also possesses the athleticism and experience to play underneath at an elite level, but with multiple foot injuries and his pension for initiating hard contact, it will be difficult to count on him to stay healthy all season. In losing C.J. Gardener-Johnson, affectionately known as “Ceedy Deuce” by teammates and Saints Nation, there is no replacement on the roster currently, or in free agency for that matter, who brings the electricity and fervor of #22. His intangibles as a leader on the field and in the community will be sorely missed, however Who Dat Nation should be optimistic.
Look to defensive backs Coach Kris Richard
Second year defensive backs coach and former NFL cornerback Kris Richard has already shown zero drop off, improvement actually, after taking over for previous coach Aaron Glenn. He coached shut down corner Marshon Lattimore to his best career season and guided then rookie Paulson Adebo to 66 tackles, eight pass deflections and three interceptions while playing in all 17 games and over 76% of snaps. The pieces are there to make up for the loss and the coaching is rock solid behind a defense that was 3rd best DVOA in the league and 4th best specifically against opposing wide receivers. Gardner-Johnson would have entered free agency next season, and assuming continued performance and good health, would have been in the market for double digit millions in his next contract. It seems highly unlikely he would have gotten that from New Orleans who have other expiring contracts to prioritize, so perhaps this trade was a bargain against an outright release next season as the Eagles will likely do. Still, it is only a bargain if the loss of Ceedy Deuce’s talents and contributions are not matched on the field this season. Between Lattimore, Williams, Roby, Taylor and the Honeybadger, the talent and versatility is there. I believe Coach Richard and the Saints vaunted defense don’t skip a beat.