When the Detroit Lions signed C.J. Gardner-Johnson this spring, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said he planned to use the NFL’s reigning co-interception leader in a role similar to what he played early in his career with the New Orleans Saints.
Gardner-Johnson, who spent last season with the Philadelphia Eagles, played primarily as a slot cornerback in New Orleans, where Glenn was his position coach, before moving more to safety last fall.
He’s played both roles comfortably so far in his short time in Detroit, but the Lions’ plans for Gardner-Johnson may have shifted some in recent weeks, and that’s due in part to the emergence of rookie second-round pick Brian Branch.
Branch has impressed enough through the first 2½ weeks of training camp that he seems assured of being in the playing rotation to open the season.
And as good as Gardner-Johnson is as a slot corner, the Lions’ best configuration in the secondary might call for him, Branch and Kerby Joseph to be on the field together, with Tracy Walker serving as a backup in his return from a torn Achilles tendon.
“I think sometimes this may get lost with C.J., he’s an excellent communicator,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said Wednesday. “Excellent communicator, and so you just kind of see the growth of he and Kerby together and I believe it’s elevated Kerby’s game as well.
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“So you potentially have a couple dynamic safeties back there that have versatility. So that’s what we like about that, having him back there and knowing he can play nickel, certainly.”
Gardner-Johnson and Joseph, who led the Lions with four interceptions last season, have taken the bulk of the first-team reps at safety in recent days, with Branch playing almost exclusively in nickel packages and Walker spending most of his time paired with Saivion Smith or Ifeatu Melifonwu with the second team.
Walker and Joseph opened camp as the Lions’ top safety tandem, with Gardner-Johnson seeing more time at nickel, but that changed when Gardner-Johnson went down with a knee injury on Day 2 of camp.
Branch played well in Gardner-Johnson’s absence and has been a ball magnet all summer, and the Lions have rewarded him with steady work with the first team. In Wednesday’s joint practice with the New York Giants, Branch stripped a catch loose from Parris Campbell to force an incompletion and had a would-be sack on a safety blitz.
“It’s early but he’s one of those guys, you kind of see the lightbulb,” Dan Campbell said earlier this summer. “What showed up on the tape in college is beginning to show up already, up here, quickly. He’s an instinctive guy. He’s got some ballhawk ability.”
Paired with Joseph, a true free safety, Gardner-Johnson and Branch could give the Lions their best combination of playmaking and flexibility in the back end.
Gardner-Johnson played 55% of his snaps at free safety, 23% at strong safety and 21% in the slot with the Eagles last season, according to InsideTheBirds.com, and set his career-high in interceptions despite missing five games.
Branch played more than 74% of his snaps in the slot at Alabama last season, and spent most of the rest of his time as a box safety, according to Pro Football Focus.
Having more seamlessly interchangeable parts in the back end should, in theory, allow Glenn to do more on defense.
“Just to move people around and be able to do things that seem a little unconventional, I look forward to being able to do that,” he told the Free Press in June.
Walker, with three interceptions in 62 career games, has not been as proficient forcing turnovers as Joseph or Gardner-Johnson, and that could leave him No. 4 in the pecking order among the Lions’ top safeties, though it’s far too early to say that with any certainty.
Campbell insisted Wednesday that Walker still is “very much in this thing” competing for a starting job, and Walker said he’s not worried about how the Lions have used him in practice in recent weeks.
“I just got to control what I can control,” he said. “I’m going to be honest, that’s it. It’s one of them things where I only can do what I do best and that’s make plays and continue to be me, ball. And lead my teammates out there, so if I’m out there with the ones, if I’m out there with the twos, I’m just going to lead my teammates and the rest will take care of itself.”
A little more than 10 months removed from his Achilles injury, Walker said he feels just as explosive as he was before the injury, though he knows the next step is proving that in games.
“(We have) a lot of versatility, and honestly that’s what upstairs is trying to figure out right now,” Walker said. “We’ve got so many guys who can play so many different positions, so they’re just plugging in people and just trying to figure out who’s the best options. So that’s just kind of where I stand. I just stand on what I got to do and control what I control. It’s just one of them things where, like I said, I’m going to ball when I’m out there, I’m going to get my opportunities but until then, I’m going to be a supportive teammate, be the leader that I am.”