C.J. Gardner-Johnson: Detroit Lions roster ‘a little bit better’ than Eagles’ Super Bowl team

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Lions swooped in and signed the newest big-name addition to their secondary seemingly out of nowhere, but the wooing of C.J. Gardner-Johnson started long ago.

Gardner-Johnson said at his introductory news conference Monday that his relationship with Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn dates to when he was a top high school recruit in 2015.

Gardner-Johnson was taking part in The Opening, a Nike recruiting event, when Glenn served as his position coach. The two hit it off, stayed in contact during Gardner-Johnson’s college days at Florida, and four years later, the New Orleans Saints drafted Gardner-Johnson at the behest of Glenn, their then-secondary coach.

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Gardner-Johnson played in sub packages as a rookie and eventually took over as the Saints’ slot cornerback. On Monday, he recalled something Glenn told him that season, that “by the time I get you again and where I’m going to be at, you’ll be exactly what I need you to be.”

“It’s like a father-son relationship,” Gardner-Johnson said. “So I think me growing as a player, as a man, understanding how to get better from Year 1 to Year 4 maturing, I think that’s what really brought me here, bringing me back to the roots so I can understand like I don’t get too up, I stay grounded and continue to work.”

Gardner-Johnson signed a one-year deal worth up to $8 million Monday to be exactly what Glenn needs in the Lions’ revamped secondary.

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A do-it-all defensive back who played most of his three seasons with the Saints at slot cornerback, Gardner-Johnson emerged as one of the best safeties in the NFL last season after being traded to the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles.

He tied for the league lead with six interceptions, made a career-high 67 tackles and was considered one of the top defensive backs in free agency.

Gardner-Johnson said his familiarity with Glenn and Lions head coach Dan Campbell, another ex-Saints assistant, made the decision to sign with the Lions an easy one after contract talks broke down with the Eagles.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Eagles offered Gardner-Johnson a multi-year deal to return before the start of free agency, then pulled that deal after re-signing cornerback James Bradberry and extending cornerback Darius Slay.

Universal Sports Management, the agency that represents Gardner-Johnson, tweeted Monday, in apparent reference to the report, that a one-year, $8 million deal trumps a three-year, $24 million deal with most of that money ($17 million plus) coming in Year 3.

“It is what it is,” Gardner-Johnson said. “The past is the past. I’m here now with a brand new team and city, ready to win some games.”

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Gardner-Johnson said he doesn’t need the Eagles’ about-face as motivation — free agency “felt like a draft day all over again, truthfully,” he said — and he insisted he has no hard feelings towards an organization that gave him one of the greatest thrills of his professional career.

“We went to the Super Bowl,” Gardner-Johnson said. “I mean, obviously we didn’t win it, but the experience that I had, I don’t have any bad blood. I mean, people overreact to a tweet in free agency but it was never disrespectful to the organization. The organization was like family, it’s just you got to do what’s best for your family, that’s all it is.”

As one of the most experienced hands in the Lions’ revamped but still young secondary — the Lions added projected starting cornerbacks Cam Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley in free agency, return safeties Kerby Joseph and Tracy Walker and still have young cornerbacks Jerry Jacobs and Jeff Okudah on their roster — Gardner-Johnson will take on more of a leadership role this fall, something he said is the next step in his career.

On the field, he could play either slot cornerback or safety, depending on Joseph’s development and the return of Walker from a torn Achilles.

And he said he sees similarities between this Lions team and the Eagles one that went to the Super Bowl, but that Detroit has “a little bit better” talent than what he played with in Philadelphia last year.

“But that’s just on me, from the outside looking in,” Gardner-Johnson said. “But this team has talent. This team, we can win the division, like possibly win the division. Everybody should feel that way, but when I look at a team coming from where I came from, the teams I played on, won multiple divisions, been in playoff games, been to the Super Bowl, this team has what it takes to be a divisional (champ), get there, win the division, get to the playoffs. But it’s got to start with what’s your identity, who are you, and I think that’s going to start when we get back with each other on the mandatory date, to kick in.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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