New Detroit Lions cornerback C.J. Gardner-Johnson came ever so close to getting a ring just over a month ago. As a key part of the Philadelphia Eagles defense—he led the NFL with six interceptions in 2022—Gardner-Johnson found himself in the title game and just a few plays short of lifting the Lombardi Trophy.
Now in Detroit on a one-year deal reportedly worth up to $8 million, Gardner-Johnson sees a secondary that is more than capable of doing similar things this year.
“To be honest with you, (the Lions defensive backs are) a little bit better,” Gardner-Johnson said during his introductory press conference Monday. “But that’s just on me. Everybody can look at the outside looking in, but this team is talented. This team, we can win a division. Everybody should feel that way. But when I look at the team, coming from where I came from, all the teams I’ve played on, won multiple divisions, been to playoff games, been to the Super Bowl, this team has what it takes to win a division, you know what I’m saying, get there, win a division, get to the playoffs.”
On the surface, that’s an extremely bold claim. While the 2022 Lions and Eagles were relatively close in offensive production (Philly averaged 28.1 points per game , while the Lions averaged 26.6), Philadelphia had one of the best defenses in the league (sixth in DVOA, fourth in EPA), and the Lions had one of the worst (28th in DVOA, 31st in EPA).
But the Lions have had an active week in free agency, with significant additions on the defensive side of the ball. Detroit now has three new experienced starters in the secondary with the signings of Cameron Sutton, Emmanuel Moseley, and Gardner-Johnson, which should help improve the Lions' pass defense, which ranked 31st in yards per attempt and 27th in passes defended.
Of course, if this all sounds like sour grapes from a player who, according to a tweet from Eagles reporter Jeff McLane, turned down a multi-year deal from the Eagles, maybe it is. But Gardner-Johnson insists it’s all love between himself and his former team.
“I don’t have any bad blood,” Gardner-Johnson said. “People overreact to a tweet in free agency, but it was never disrespectful toward the organization. The organization treated me like family. It’s just, gotta do what’s best for your family. That’s all it is.”
The Lions also have the benefit of something that the Eagles defense didn’t have last year: youth. That comes with the benefit of a steadily improving roster with players in the prime of their careers, but Gardner-Johnson was also quick to point out that it comes with challenges, too.
“We just gotta understand the identity and stand on it,” Gardner-Johnson said. “If we’re going to be a team that’s going to fight from behind all year, we gotta be that team all year. If we gonna be in front all year and blow teams out, gotta be that team all year. You can’t change your identity every week.”
Gardner-Johnson himself is still quite young. He’ll turn 26 in December, but this is already his fifth year in the league. So he believes he was brought to Detroit to be a bit of a leader to help establish that identity and develop that week-to-week consistency. Having been around veterans like Malcolm Jenkins, Darius Slay, and James Bradberry, Gardner-Johnson believes he has the tools to help build that culture and grow as a leader.
“Everybody’s young. I’m young. I’m only five years in, but being around the veteran presence helps me understand how to become a leader. I think that’s what they brought me here for, and I think that’s the next step for me. It’s not football anymore. It’s about being a better person, better teammate for the next person.”