Allen Park — The Detroit Lions clearly felt a pressing need to upgrade the team’s secondary this offseason. After adding cornerbacks Cam Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley, the team took another big swing Sunday night, reaching an agreement with free agent safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.
According to an NFL Network report, it’s a one-year, $8 million deal with $6.5 million guaranteed.
A personal favorite of Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, the two worked together during the first two years of Gardner-Johnson’s career in New Orleans. A fourth-round draft pick out of Florida in 2019, he played three seasons with the Saints before he was traded to the Eagles ahead of last season.
Despite appearing in just 12 games for the Eagles in 2022, missing more than a month with a lacerated kidney, Gardner-Johnson tied for the league lead with six interceptions. It was a career-high for the 25-year-old safety who had three picks in 12 games for the Saints the previous season.
In 2021, Glenn referenced Gardner-Johnson when providing a scouting report for then-rookie Jerry Jacobs, highlighting their shared competitiveness.
“When I looked at Jerry, body type-wise, he reminded me of Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, a guy that I drafted in the fourth round in New Orleans,” Glenn said. “The body type, so he’s around 205 and Chauncey’s around 210, same height, but ultra-competitive, ultra-competitive. So, at that point, I started to look at that, ‘OK, so let me see how this guy plays.’ I saw the same fight, the dog mentality, in training camp that you see from Chauncey. I don’t want to say this guy is Chauncey, but there’s a chance he can be trained and developed to be a nickel or outside corner in our system to be able to operate like that.”
Glenn brought up Gardner-Johnson again earlier this month at the league’s scouting combine.
“I like a safety that has an opportunity to play nickel, because those guys are bigger-body guys, but now those guys are able to cover, because this is a space game,” Glenn said. “So if you can get a bigger body guy to play nickel and (be) a run fit, man, you really got something now. I mean, I’ve had that with Chauncey Gardner(-Johnson) in New Orleans.”
In the two years the coordinator and Gardner-Johnson worked together, he played a versatile role, but mostly saw time in the slot. He continued to line up all across the defensive backfield for the Eagles, but his primarily alignment was as a free safety for the first time in his career.
It will be interesting to see how Detroit envisions all the pieces, new and old, coming together. In addition to the signings of Gardner-Johnson, Sutton and Moseley, the team also re-signed Will Harris — who finished last season as the team’s starting slot cornerback — while outside starters Jeff Okudah and Jacobs remain under contract. At safety, starters Tracy Walker and Kerby Joseph are also expected to return, although Walker is rehabbing his way back from a torn Achilles suffered last September.
In 2022, the Lions ranked 31st in yards per pass attempt allowed and the 94.2 passer rating posted by opposing quarterbacks was bottom-10.