This is the sixth installment of our “Why the Detroit Lions should draft…” series in which we get to know the top prospects in the 2022 NFL Draft and make the argument for why the Lions should select them with the second overall pick.
Let me ask you a question: Do the Detroit Lions have a No. 1 cornerback on their roster?
If you answered anything other than “no” or “I don’t know,” you either have a ton of faith in Jeff Okudah recovering fully from an Achilles injury and developing into an elite player or you think more highly of Amani Oruwariye than I do. Oruwariye is a fine player, and he proved last year he could be a really good No. 2 cornerback. But a cornerback capable of locking down some of the best wide receivers in this league, he is not. He racked up an impressive six interceptions, but his PFF coverage grade of 60.3 is a bit more telling.
In my mind, the Lions do not have a shutdown cornerback, which means one thing: they should be in the market for a shutdown cornerback.
I know, I know. We just got done arguing over the positional value of a cornerback, and drafting Okudah with the third overall pick in 2020 certainly doesn’t look like the best decision this franchise has made.
However, I maintain that cornerback is premier position in today’s NFL. PFF did a study utilizing their own WAR (wins above replacement) metric and showed that cornerback is actually the second-most valuable position behind only quarterback. The NFL is still not spending a ton of draft capital on the position, but when you look at the top-10 paid players at each position, the average salary of a cornerback ($16.7 million) is not far behind that of left tackle ($18.5 million), a position that everyone agrees is a premium position and NFL general managers regularly draft in the top five.
So now that I’ve cleansed you of the notion that cornerback isn’t a need, or isn’t worth the second overall pick, let’s talk about the man in question today: Cincinnati’s cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner.
You want to talk about a shutdown cornerback? After producing 20 passes defended and six interceptions in his first 14 starts at Cincinnati, quarterbacks just about gave up throwing in Gardner’s direction last season. Per Dane Brugler’s 2022 Draft Guide, Gardner was only targeted on about 11.0 percent of his opponent’s passes—and he still managed to pick off three more passes in 2021.
Look at these ridiculous stats Gardner produced in singled coverage in his three years as a Bearcat (via PFF):
Receptions allowed: 22
Yards alloweD: 474
Touchdowns allowed: 0
Passer rating allowed: 15.2
And here are his stats for the 2021 season alone:
Cincinnati CB Sauce Gardner (6-3, 190, 4.47 40) had an incredible career at Cincinnati.
2021: Let up 18 catches on 37 targets, 122 yards, 0 TDs, 3 INTs, 22.6 passer rating
Didn’t allow a TD in 33 career games with a 31.8 passer rating.
— Doug Kyed (@DougKyed) March 6, 2022
Zero touchdowns allowed. Sauce. Island.
Some have claimed Gardner just beat up on bad competition in the AAC. While there’s certainly some merit to that, Gardner had an opportunity to shine against elite competition with the University of Alabama and all of their ridiculous talent. How’d he do?
Just fine. Arguably the best receiver in this year’s class, Jameson Williams, managed just 62 yards in this game, while Alabama tallied only 181 total passing yards. All of those gains were made away from Gardner’s coverage.
What makes Gardner so damn good is he’s physical, confident, and technically sound. He’s got length (6-foot-4) and speed (4.41 40-yard dash). He’s also completely unafraid at getting his nose dirty in the run game, earning an impressive 77.8 run defense grade in 2021 per PFF. He’ll fearlessly press against even the biggest receivers in the next level, and he can turn and run with the best of them, too.
If there’s a weakness to his game, it’s what happens downfield. He prefers to stop routes before they even get started, but if the receiver gets a free release, he can sometimes find himself in trouble. Still, with the athletic traits he has and the well above-average ball skills, that is something defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn could work on immediately.
Another compelling argument for Gardner is that he’ll make his teammates better, and we have proof of that in Coby Bryant, his teammate. As teams started to look elsewhere with Gardner locking down half of the field, Bryant’s productions suddenly spiked. He produced 25 passes defended and seven interceptions in his final two season in Cincinnati. That’s not to take anything away from Bryant, he made those plays, but he undeniably benefitted from Gardner funneling targets his way. Imagine what Gardner’s play could do for players like Oruwariye, Okudah or Ifeatu Melifonwu.
Is Gardner my first choice for the Detroit Lions? No, he is not. He’s not my second or third or fourth choice either. But I like writing this series, because it gets at an underlying truth to the NFL Draft that many people overlook. Sometime there is more than one right answer to a question. Last year, I wrote a pro Micah Parsons’ article for this series, and while I was more in favor of Penei Sewell, both Sewell and Parsons eventually proved they were worth the consideration.
So while Gardner wouldn’t be my choice on draft day, he is worthy of being considered here. He’s an extreme athlete who had tremendous production at a premier position. He absolutely should be part of this conversation.