Detroit Lions sign Eagles S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, NFL co-interception leader in 2022

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Lions are loading up their defense to make a run at an NFC North title in 2023.

The Lions signed one of the best free agents left on the market Sunday, agreeing to a one-year, $8 million deal with Philadelphia Eagles safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, his agent told NFL Network.

Gardner-Johnson tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions last season and adds another playmaker to a Lions secondary that’s undergone significant change this offseason.

The Lions, who ranked last in the NFL in total defense and tied for 28th in points allowed last season, signed cornerbacks Cam Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley to free agent deals last week.

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Sutton and Moseley are projected starters this fall, once Moseley returns from his torn ACL, and Gardner-Johnson adds versatility and familiarity to the Lions secondary.

One of the Eagles’ most valuable defensive players last season, Gardner-Johnson played his first three NFL seasons with the New Orleans Saints, including 2019-20 when Lions head coach Dan Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn were assistants with the team.

In New Orleans, Gardner-Johnson played primarily as a nickel cornerback, Glenn said in 2021, when he said he saw a little of Lions cornerback Jerry Jacobs in Gardner-Johnson.

“I saw the same fight, the dog mentality (In Jacobs) in training camp that you see from Chauncey,” Glenn said, adding, “Chauncey played a little bit of safety. He was more just a nickel for us. And we know how nickel is in this league now. Nickel’s a starter, so the thing about Chauncy is he played against 12 personnel, 11 personnel, 21 personnel because of the size factor.”

The Lions re-signed Will Harris, who finished last season as their nickel cornerback, but could deploy Gardner-Johnson as a safety, slot cornerback or in some sort of hybrid role.

The Lions return top safeties Tracy Walker and Kerby Joseph from last season, though Walker is rehabbing from a torn Achilles tendon and Joseph had an up-and-down rookie season despite leading the Lions with four interceptions.

A major weakness last season, the Lions enter the spring with a deep secondary infused with still-young veteran talent.

Joseph is 22, Gardner-Johnson is 25, Moseley is 26 and Sutton just turned 28 years old. Jacobs and Jeff Okudah, who project to fill cornerback roles after starting most of last season, are 25 and 24, respectively.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the defending NFC champion Eagles, who acquired Johnson in a trade last summer, made the safety a multi-year offer early in free agency but decided to move on and re-sign cornerback James Bradberry and extend cornerback Darius Slay after Johnson balked at the offer expecting a bigger market to develop in free agency.

Gardner-Johnson has 11 interceptions in his four NFL seasons, the same as the Lions’ projected starting secondary entering free agency — Okudah, Jacobs, Harris, Walker and Joseph — have in their NFL careers combined.

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

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