Allen Park — The first time Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn and defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson crossed paths was 2016, at Nike’s “The Opening” football camp for the nation’s elite skill-position players. Glenn, who was early in his coaching career, was there to work with the cornerbacks at the camp, while Garner-Johnson was bound for Florida to begin his college career.
Three years later, the two connected again when the New Orleans Saints drafted Johnson in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL draft. Glenn was entering his fourth season as the franchise’s defensive backs coach, but instead of having a few days to spend with Gardner-Johnson, the coach had two years to develop the young defender.
Now, their paths converge again, this time in Detroit, where Glenn will lean on a more experienced, more mature Gardner-Johnson to help lead a secondary that’s been overhauled and upgraded in free agency.
“It’s like a father-son relationship,” Gardner-Johnson said. “When I mess up, even when I wasn’t playing with him, I’d mess up and I would text him like, ‘Did you see it? Did you not see it?’ Because it was like, (you) don’t want to let somebody down who actually is there to help you.
“…I remember him telling me, ‘By the time I get you again, where I’m going to be at, you’re going to be exactly where I need you to be,” Gardner-Johnson continued. ” I think me, growing as a player and as a man, understanding how to get better from Year 1 to Year 4, maturing, I think that’s what really brought me here, back to my roots.”
Gardner-Johnson is only 25 years old, another young piece on a decidedly young roster. But, with more than 2,700 snaps under his belt, as well as seven playoff games, he brings a wealth of experience.
On top of that, he’s played alongside outstanding veterans throughout his career. From Marcus Williams, Von Bell and Marshon Lattimore in New Orleans to Darius Slay and James Bradberry in Philadelphia. And then there’s the team success, which includes four winning seasons out of five, three division titles and the Super Bowl appearance with the Eagles last year. It’s all of that knowledge he’s looking to bring to Detroit and share with his new teammates.
“Everybody’s young,” Gardner-Johnson said. “I’m young. I’m only five years in, but being around the veteran presence helps me understand how to become a leader. I think that’s what they brought me here for, and I think that’s the next step for me. It’s not (just) football anymore. It’s about being a better person, better teammate for the next person.”
On the field, Gardner-Johnson also brings coveted versatility and playmaking. In just 12 games with the Eagles last season, he tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions, giving him nine picks across the past two years. He’s shown the ability to play both as a slot cornerback, where he saw most of his work in his three seasons in New Orleans, as well as deep safety, which was the preferred alignment in which he was deployed by the Eagles.
Asked how he views himself in Detroit, Gardner-Johnson smiled and said, “Him,” the slang term stemming from a 2019 R&B song, which declares you’re the guy who can do anything that’s asked.
“I just feel like when you get the chance to do multiple things, you’re not limited to one; you can just really express your football personality more than talk about what you can do,” Gardner-Johnson said. “So, I think (if) I got the chance to go play nickel, I’m gonna dominate nickel. (If) I got a chance to go play safety, I’m going to dominate safety. So, I think no matter where you put me, it’s going down all game.”
Gardner-Johnson got an up-close look at the Lions last season, when the two teams played in the first week. He was impressed by the team’s grit and fight. Within that, he’s hoping to hammer home the value of consistency. He’s learned through the early stages of his career that the chances for success increase when you take the same approach, day in and day out, season after season.
And, as mentioned, he knows what winning football looks like. It’s almost all he’s known since coming into the league. He understands the talent it takes to get to the top of the mountain, and he’s convinced his new team has what it takes to make that climb.
“To be honest with you, a little bit better,” Gardner-Johnson said, when asked to compare his first impression of Detroit’s talent to Philadelphia’s, when he arrived there via a trade last year. “…This team, we can win a division. Everybody should feel that way. But, when I look at the team, coming from where I came from, all the teams I’ve played on, won multiple divisions, been to playoff games, been to the Super Bowl, this team has what it takes to win a division, you know what I’m saying, get there, win a division, get to the playoffs. But, it’s gotta start with what’s your identity? Who are you?”