The curious case of C.J. Gardner-Johnson

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Will C.J. Gardner-Johnson help fix the Eagles’ troubled defense or bring more of the same to Philadelphia’s broken secondary?

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Johnson and the Eagles have agreed to terms on a three-year contract that could pay the 26-year-old safety up to $33M with incentives. Johnson earned $2.5M with Philadelphia in 2022 and led the team with six interceptions in 12 games.

So why did the Eagles let him go to the Lions? With Johnson on the roster, Philadelphia rode the league’s top-ranked secondary to Super Bowl LVII. Without him, they gave up the third-most points per game (25.2) and finished 2023 with the NFL’s 31st-ranked pass defense.

Johnson signed a one-year, $6.5M deal with Detroit but missed all but three regular season games with a torn pectoral muscle. He also missed some tackles, 10.5% to be exact, which according to Pro Football Reference is actually better than his 13.8% missed tackle average since becoming a starter in 2020.

By comparison, fellow free agent safety Xavier McKinney missed only 6% of tackles in four years with the Giants. Philadelphia was rumored to have interest in McKinney but he agreed to terms on a four-year, $68M deal with the Packers.

The league’s top safeties don’t miss tackles. Tampa’s Antoine Winfield was given the team’s franchise tag after missing seven tackles last season and just two the year before. Former Bronco Justin Simmons missed five tackles in 2023 and remains available as a free agent.

Tackling was a problem for Philadelphia in 2023. Altogether, the team missed 98 tackles, two less than the last-place Commanders but 35 more than the first-place Cowboys in the NFC East. As a result, the team allowed 2,271 yards after catch (YAC), seventh-most among NFL teams.

Of course there’s more to playing safety than tackling, and Johnson offers things that Philadelphia needs. Without Johnson, the Eagles tied for 26th with nine interceptions last year. They also didn’t show much heart, especially down the stretch by losing six of their last seven games including a 32-9 blowout loss to the Buccaneers in the playoffs. Johnson has always worn his heart on his sleeve, and occasionally on social media.

Still, to give a player with Johnson’s injury history up to $11M per year seems curious, especially with players like Simmons still available. But Eagles fans are happy (for now) and as long as their new/old safety gets his interceptions, they’ll gladly take this modest upgrade.

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