Sunday, February 5 2023

By Henry McKenna
FOX Sports AFC East Writer

New York Jets coach Robert Saleh has never seen a rookie talk as much trash as cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner

Gardner is just different. His trash talk, his build, his mentality — it’s all different. That’s why the Jets selected the Cincinnati product fourth overall in the draft, putting him in rare company as one of the few corners picked in the top five in NFL history. The prestigious list includes Jalen Ramsey, Patrick Peterson and Charles Woodson. 

Now there are two more, as Gardner was selected after the Texans drafted Derek Stingley Jr., the LSU cornerback who barely played in 2021 due to a Lisfranc injury. No doubt the two corners will be linked and compared for years to come. 

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The Jets aren’t calling Gardner Sauce yet — not until he makes a play in the regular season. But it’s easy to see why he’s had that nickname since he was 6. When talking trash with his teammates, Gardner has one goal: to elevate their play. He wants them to give him their best. When talking trash against opponents, however, he has a different goal: to destroy their confidence.

“I see that happen a lot,” Gardner said. “You get receivers trying to do stuff that’s outside the norm, and it just makes them play even worse. That’s the good thing about trash talk and getting people out of their game — messing up their timing with the quarterback.”

Gardner can take control of a matchup with a receiver just by jawing at him. While some players might lose control in the process, that’s not Gardner. One time during spring practices at Cincinnati, he and a receiver were getting chippy and a scrap ensued. Gardner didn’t throw any punches or escalate the physicality — but he also didn’t stop the chatter with the receiver. Bearcats defensive coordinator Mike Tressel pulled Gardner aside to tell him to cut it out. Gardner just smiled.

“I got this. He’s losing his mind,” he told Tressel on the sideline.

The trash talk was working. The receiver was losing the mental matchup and, in turn, losing their matchup on the field. That’s just one of many examples of Gardner’s radiant confidence — just the right amount for a cornerback.

“Most young players are fighting for a roster spot,” said Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. “They’re fighting to potentially start. I don’t think that’s his mindset. I think his mindset is, ‘I’m going to be the best in this game.'”

The secret about Gardner’s confidence — rare in that it’s not arrogance — is that it’s borne out of humility. If that sounds paradoxical, then remember that I warned you: This guy is just different. 

Growing up in Detroit, Gardner was not highly recruited in high school. In fact, Tressel recalled getting a look at Gardner playing against Tressel’s son, who was a receiver. Though Gardner completely erased Tressel’s son from the game, the coach didn’t think of recommending that Michigan State (where Tressel was on staff at the time) recruit Gardner. He ended up at Cincinnati.

In Gardner’s freshman season, he was as skinny as an end-zone pylon. He showed up weighing 152 pounds. His coaches didn’t anticipate him making an impact right away. But coach Luke Fickell and Brady Collins, the strength and conditioning coach, chatted on the sideline at practice about how Gardner would be a menace in time — once he added weight and seasoning. 

They were both happy to be wrong when, in Gardner’s fifth game of his freshman season, the cornerback logged four tackles and an interception that he returned for a touchdown against Central Florida, the top team in the American Athletic Conference at the time. The TD shifted the momentum of the game — and the conference. The Bearcats didn’t lose a game to UFC during Gardner’s college career.

“That was a big moment,” said Alec Pierce, a former Cincy teammate and a current Indianapolis Colts wideout. “He’s got that star mentality. He loves the spotlight, and he really shines in it. He just kind of took over from there.”

The weight was still an issue. But Gardner, who is now 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, ensured it was a substantially smaller issue than the coaches thought. He had a breakout freshman season despite not weighing more than 165 pounds that year.

Fast-forward to the spring before Gardner’s junior season, which proved to be his final year in college. Gardner and Collins were watching the 2021 NFL Draft separately, and Collins shot the cornerback a text with an ESPN graphic that showed the top cornerbacks selected: eighth overall pick Jaycee Horn and ninth overall pick Patrick Surtain. They were not the typical NFL cornerback. They were taller — just like Gardner — while also possessing the rare speed, agility, leaping ability and strength required for the position. The graphic showed the new era of oversized athletes at the position. 

Collins texted: “All your numbers line up with these two top first-round picks. Your speed — real close. Your vertical. Bench. So what’s the one outlier?”

Gardner responded: “Bodyweight.”

Collins said: “You’re damn right.”

They knew what their focus would be in preparation for the 2021 college season and for the 2022 NFL Draft. Gardner needed to put on weight if he wanted to check the same boxes as Surtain and Horn. So he went to work.

“He was like a freshman again,” Collins said. “He’d do extra sets of stuff [in the weight room]. He really bought into it, he loved it, he became an absolute grinder in the weight room. Just as he started to put that mass on, all it did was enhance everything about him. He became, obviously, stronger. Well, he also became incredibly faster.”

Gardner established himself as the top cornerback in college football in his final college season. He was so special that he was drafted higher than both Surtain and Horn were a year earlier. No, Gardner did not play in the SEC like Surtain or Horn. He did, however, completely change the complexion of his defense and, in turn, of the opposing offenses.

“You can roll all of your coverages away from him,” Tressel said. “The bottom line is you knew, especially in a critical situation, nobody was going to throw that way. So you could almost ignore that half of the field in your coverages and in your schemes. And then obviously, the other aspect of it is don’t have to play with somebody over the top. So you can be stronger against the run.”

Receivers would, of course, log receptions on Gardner. But Pierce, who went in the second round of this year’s draft, said he was relieved to see so many receivers around the conference get shut down by Gardner. In 598 career coverage snaps in college, the cornerback allowed zero touchdowns and a 35.3 passer rating when targeted, per Pro Football Focus.

“I love seeing other people go through what I was gonna do every day,” Pierce said of facing Gardner in practice. “I wasn’t getting locked down like that, but it’s definitely a little different. It’s a tougher look.”

Alec Pierce on practicing against Sauce Gardner

RJ Young is joined by former Cincinnati WR Alec Pierce, who shares what it was like competing every day in practice against two of the best defensive backs in the country last year in Sauce Gardner and Coby Bryant.

When most cornerbacks allow a catch, they say they need to have a short memory. Tressel said it wasn’t like that for Gardner.

“It was more like he viewed that as ‘you got lucky,’” the Cincinnati defensive coordinator said. “And he was going to raise his game up. So actually, I don’t know if it angered him or just got him to take another step. … He knew he wasn’t going to [let it] happen again.”

Since entering the NFL, Gardner has made an important revelation: “Everyone’s good.” He has yet to win a starting cornerback spot, instead rotating behind D.J. Reed, Michael Carter and Bryce Hall during joint practices against the Atlanta Falcons

During preseason games, with Reed sitting out to prevent injury, Gardner has started alongside Hall on the outside. On the 27 preseason snaps he has played, Gardner has not seen a single target, per PFF. The digital scouting service has given him a coverage grade of 70.4, a very respectable number. 

There’s little question that, after Hall allowed a pair of touchdowns in preseason Week 2, Gardner will ascend into a starting role for the regular-season opener. His eagerness to learn and strong play on the field is clearly winning over his coaches.

“He’s that guy that’s constantly collecting information and then sprinting back to the locker room and writing it down,” said Ulbrich, the Jets’ defensive coordinator. “He’s just building this database right now. You get him once, and now he’s ready for it.” 

It seems that Sauce is ready to make an impact for the Jets in Year 1, just like he did as a skinny college freshman. 

Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.


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