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2023 Detroit Lions roster preview: Can C.J. Gardner-Johnson pick up where he left off in 2022?

After a career year in 2022, Gardner-Johnson lands with the Detroit Lions on a one-year deal. How much of an impact will he have in Detroit's secondary?

Super Bowl LVII - Kansas City Chiefs v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

In what was one of the more surprising developments of the 2023 NFL free agency period, defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson signed a one-year deal with the Detroit Lions. Fresh off of a monster year patrolling the secondary for the Philadelphia Eagles, many around the league assumed the former Florida Gator was in for a big pay day, especially after the numbers he put up in 2022.

Having already taken quite a few swings in free agency up until that point, Lions’ general manager Brad Holmes monitored the situation with Gardner-Johnson, and made his move at the right time—adding yet another talented player to Detroit’s secondary.

Let’s take a closer look at Gardner-Johnson as our 2023 Detroit Lions roster preview series rolls on.

Previous roster previews: Aidan Hutchinson, Jameson Williams, Josh Paschal, Kerby Joseph, James Mitchell, Malcolm Rodriguez, James Houston, Chase Lucas, Obinna Eze, Greg Bell, Penei Sewell, Levi Onwuzurike, Alim McNeill, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Derrick Barnes, Jermar Jefferson, Brock Wright, Jerry Jacobs, Cameron Sutton, Emmanuel Moseley, David Montgomery, and Graham Glasgow.

C.J. Gardner-Johnson

Actual role in 2022 (with Eagles)

12 games (12 starts): 729 defensive snaps
Stats: 61 total tackles, 1 sack, six interceptions, 8 PBUs
PFF defensive grade: 63.9 (42nd of 63 safeties with over 700 snaps)
PFF run defense grade: 57.2 (51st of 63)
PFF tackling grade: 52.0 (56th of 63)
PFF coverage grade: 64.2 (39th of 63)

Gardner-Johnson spent his first three years of his professional career with the New Orleans Saints after they drafted him in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL draft. Prior to his fourth year, he was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for a handful of draft picks after stating his desire for a new contract in New Orleans. And in the city of brotherly love, Gardner-Johnson would thrive—finishing in a four-way tie for the most interceptions in the NFL with six.

As is the case with certain position groups and PFF’s grading scale, their numbers don’t always reflect Gardner-Johnson’s true impact. Earlier in the offseason, I studied Gardner-Johnson’s film—both from his time in Philadelphia, and in New Orleans, and many of the things he accomplishes on the back end of a defense are difficult to quantify with a numerical grade.

In 2022, Gardner-Johnson would start every game at safety that he was available for in Philadelphia, only missing time due to a lacerated kidney suffered in a Week 12 matchup with the Green Bay Packers. And as for those league-leading six interceptions, all of them happened in Weeks 1 through 10—putting Gardner-Johnson in rarefied air as far as playmaking is concerned.

It was certainly a talented unit overall, but make no mistake about it—Gardner-Johnson was one of the cogs that helped the Eagles make it all the way to the Super Bowl.

Outlook for 2023

For quite a while, myself and others on the Pride of Detroit staff have asked for the Lions to add a little attitude to their defense—someone like right tackle Penei Sewell or wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. Someone who isn’t afraid to grab a Hall of Fame player like Aaron Donald by the facemask like Sewell did as a rookie, and who remembers each and every wide receiver taken before him in the 2021 draft—like St. Brown did on HBO’s ‘Hard Knocks.’

We won’t know for some time exactly how long Gardner-Johnson is going to be in Detroit, but for 2023, I think it is safe to say we can expect him to bring an edge to the Lions’ defense that has been missing for quite a while. Gardner-Johnson is going to chirp, and when he makes a play or a lays a big hit on an opposing ball-carrier, he is going to let them know about it. Loudly.

And Gardner-Johnson’s volume doesn’t only lend itself to talking smack. Communication, especially in a defensive secondary, is paramount to a unit’s success. Just ask Lions’ quarterback Jared Goff.

“It’s much stickier I feel like this year,” Goff said of Detroit’s retooled secondary. “And whether that’s a product of new players or just having another year in the scheme, I can’t tell you. But it’s been much stickier and much harder for us to gain separation at this point in OTAs and I think they’ve done a hell of a job making it harder on us and growing as a unit over there too.”

Projected to be the Lions’ starter at the nickel cornerback spot, Gardner-Johnson is one of several multi-faceted weapons defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn will have at his disposal. There will be plenty of snaps where Gardner-Johnson will be lined up in the slot in what will essentially be the Lions’ base defense. However, he has the ability to play either safety spot as well. Throw rookie defensive back Brian Branch into the mix and the Lions should be able to effectively mix and match their coverages and pre-snap looks.

“It’s early, we’re in spring, but there’s a reason why we went and got Cam Sutton,” said Lions’ coach Dan Campbell after a mandatory minicamp practice earlier this offseason. “There’s a reason why we got (Emmanuel) Moseley. There’s a reason why we got C.J. Because we believe they certainly upgrade us production-wise, but they are also football guys. They fit everything that we are about.”

From a counting statistics standpoint, I doubt Gardner-Johnson reaches six interceptions on the year in 2023. After all, he will be playing a different position in Detroit than he did in Philadelphia, but with he and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn reunited, there should be no shortage of opportunities for Gardner-Johnson to make big plays. Whether it’s patrolling as a deep safety, or popping a receiver closer to the line of scrimmage— “CJGJ” is one of those players who seemingly has a nose for the big time play.

Could we see a few more forced fumbles and tackles for loss if we do indeed see a dip in interception production? How quickly can Gardner-Johnson gel with the rest of Detroit’s secondary? What is the ceiling production-wise for him as he shifts back into the slot after spending most of last season as a deep safety?

If he can acclimate quickly, there is no reason to think he and Glenn won’t pick up right where they left off from their time together in New Orleans—putting him among the best nickel cornerbacks in the NFL.

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