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Lions’ C.J. Gardner-Johnson frustrated to be in a rotational role

The Detroit Lions veteran safety isn’t happy to have lost a starting role while rehabbing from his torn pectoral muscle.

Seattle Seahawks v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

This week, the Detroit Lions are expected to get safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson back from injury, after the veteran safety tore his pectoral muscle back in Week 2. But despite Gardner-Johnson being placed on injured reserve while in a starting role, he won’t be returning with as big of a role. With the breakout play of safety Ifeatu Melifonwu over the last month, the Lions plan to use a rotation of their safeties for their regular season finale against the Minnesota Vikings.

“All three of those guys are going to play because they’re all good players,” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. “And the one thing that we try to do as a defense is make sure we have our best players out on the field. Will they all three be on the field at the same time? Possibly. Will somebody be down? Possibly. But they’re all going to play, and you’ll see that.”

Talking with the media on Friday, Gardner-Johnson said he’d accept the role, but was clearly frustrated about no longer being a full-time starter now that he’s ready to return to the field.

“I’m cool with it, but I mean, how can I say this? I don’t want to sound like I’m selfish or an (expletive), but I ain’t get back early to be in a rotation,” he said, per MLive. “But I’m doing what I need to do as a team player to get my body going per se. But I’ve been ready for almost months.”

His frustration is certainly understandable. Not only is Gardner-Johnson considered one of the best safeties in the league, but he’s spent the last four months exhaustively rehabbing from injury, shocking even coach Dan Campbell with his recovery speed.

“He’s one of the X-Men,” Campbell said back in December. “He’s got these mutant genes because he has healed extremely quickly.”

That said, the safety room has been playing at a very high level, particularly with the breakout of Melifonwu. Since becoming a starter four weeks ago, Melifonwu has 21 tackles, 3.0 sacks, five passes defended, two interceptions, and a forced fumble. He was also named NFC Defensive Player of the Week against the Vikings.

Gardner-Johnson concedes that, but believes his veteran presence and steady play deserves recognition as well.

“I didn’t lose my job because I had a coverage bust. I lost my job due to injury,” Gardner-Johnson said. “So respect the guys in front of me. But the vet is back.”

While some may be concerned that Gardner-Johnson’s frustration could lead to problems in the locker room, Campbell doesn’t see it that. It’s just the nature of having highly competitive players in the locker room, and he’s confident the veteran safety will put his disagreements aside and make the most of his opportunities.

“Ducey’s a pro at the end of the day,” Campbell said. “He wants to play. He wants to be a part of it and doesn’t mean that he has to like it, but he’s going to go out there and when he’s on the field, he’s going to give what he’s got. And that’s the most important thing.”

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