On Sunday night, the news broke that the Detroit Lions were signing multi-versatile defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson to a one-year deal with up to $8 million with a reported $6.5 million guaranteed. Gardner-Johnson and Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn will once again be united as player and coach.
Glenn has a long history with Gardner-Johnson and goes back even further than most people know—like a full decade back.
When Gardner-Johnson was just 15 years old, he attended a high school training event called The Opening in Oregon. At the event, Glenn showed up to help support former teammate Ray Mickens in coaching the defensive backs. Gardner-Johnson’s talent was undeniable and he was one of the best players at the event. But with his skills came a bravado, and when Glenn felt like Gardner-Johnson wasn’t taking direction from coaches, Glenn did a very Aaron Glenn thing and benched Gardner-Johnson. It was a reality check that Gardner-Johnson needed, and it helped set the foundation for their future interactions.
Since that fateful meeting, the pair were reunited in New Orleans when the Saints drafted Gardner-Johnson in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL draft. Immediately, Glenn knew how they could best utilize his talent, as a modern-day hybrid slot defensive back.
“(Gardner-Johnson) does have the speed and the mentality to go out there and play corner, but he can play nickel, he can play in the box, he can play deep safety, so you have fun with players like that,” Glenn said to the Associated Press following the 2019 draft. “I’m excited to see what all we can do with him. And plus, he has the mental capacity to be able to take all that information in and apply it right to the field.”
In the following two seasons under Glenn's coaching, Gardner-Johnson was used exactly the way Glenn had projected. Here’s a look at the snaps distribution over those seasons:
Last season with the Eagles, Gardner-Johnson spent over half his snaps at free safety, but make no mistake, with Glenn, he’s always been primarily a slot weapon. And if you had a chance to watch any Eagles games last season—even if it was just the Super Bowl—Gardner-Johnson made some of his most impactful plays when working out of the slot.
One of the advantages of signing Gardner-Johnson is that his safety experience gives the Lions insurance for Tracy Walker's recovery from Achilles surgery. Walker seems to be making tremendous progress and plans on being back on the field during training camp, but the addition of Gardner-Johnson allows the Lions to take their time with Walker.
But if/when Walker is healthy, I fully expect Gardner-Johnson to be the starting slot defensive back in the Lions’ scheme. To further drive home this point, let’s revisit how Glenn used Gardner-Johnson in the past versus how Glenn used Will Harris last season.
With the addition of Gardner-Johnson (Eagles), Cameron Sutton (Steelers), and Emmanuel Moseley (49ers), the Lions have added three players who were starters on their respective teams, all while retaining their three starting corners from last season, Jeff Okudah, Jerry Jacobs, and Harris.
That’s a lot of depth, but as impressive as it looks on paper, it’s also important to recognize that Sutton is the only one of those six signed beyond 2023. Now, Jacobs will be a restricted free agent, and the Lions will have first crack at re-signing all of them before they hit free agency in 2024, but with a lack of concrete stability at the position, it’s still possible the Lions invest at the position in the NFL Draft.