Jets mulling letting Sauce Gardner shadow No. 1 WRs more

ByRich Cimini ESPN logo
Friday, May 24, 2024

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- After a historic start to his career, New York Jets star Sauce Gardner is seeking a significant role adjustment in 2024.

Gardner, the first cornerback since the NFL/AFL merger in 1970 to make first-team All-Pro in each of his first two seasons, has told the coaching staff that he'd like to shadow the opponents' No. 1 wide receiver. To do that, he'd travel around the formation instead of remaining at his customary left-cornerback position -- which would be a philosophical departure for the Jets.

"I'm always looking forward to the challenge," Gardner said. "I'd like to call myself one of the best in the game, if not the best. I'm always open to compete. I always want to challenge myself, challenge other people. But, ultimately, I just want to do whatever it takes for the team to win because that's what it's all about -- winning games."

The Jets have been averse to deploying Gardner in that fashion. Three reasons:

  1. They're a zone-based defense that relies on simplicity -- ie fewer moving pieces.
  2. They're comfortable with right corner D.J. Reed and nickel back Michael Carter II covering top receivers.
  3. They've fielded a top-four defense (yards allowed) for two straight years.

As the saying goes, if it ain't broke ...

That said, it sounds like coach Robert Saleh is considering Gardner's request.

"He's a weapon we can use from the defensive standpoint, but to say it'll be exclusive, I'm not going to say that," Saleh said. "He did last year. To say he might do a little bit more, that's a possibility. But I think it's going to be more game to game."

Gardner might have moved, but it wasn't that much. He lined up for 937 snaps on the left side last season and only 60 on the right.

What about against the best receivers?

The Jets faced four 2023 Pro Bowl receivers -- Stefon Diggs, Tyreek Hill, CeeDee Lamb and Keenan Allen. On plays where one of them was on the field and Gardner was deployed in man coverage, he aligned 67 times on the left, only three on the right, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

On those three plays on the right, Gardner covered Buffalo Bills tight end Dalton Kincaid, Los Angeles Chargers receiver (and current teammate) Mike Williams and theMiami Dolphins' Hill. The Kincaid and Hill assignments came on red-zone plays. On the latter, Gardner wound up on another receiver because of a pick play.

The best-on-best opportunities where he traveled were few and far between. Another trend is clear: Opponents made a concerted effort to avoid Gardner. He was targeted a league-low 53 times among the corners with at least 400 coverage snaps, according to Next Gen Stats.

Saleh acknowledged that, saying "teams definitely did not want to throw to Sauce's side."

"I don't know if it was deliberate, but it always ends up that way," Saleh said. "But to be able to move him around so they can't just line up and say, 'Hey, we know where we're going with the football,' there would be an advantage to that for sure."

As Saleh noted, it's up to them to be creative and evolve as a defense, which might mean breaking out of their comfort zone and maximizing Gardner's special talent in a new role. There's no denying what he means to the defense. In two seasons, he has allowed a league-best 0.53 yards per coverage snap, per Pro Football Focus.

Once upon a time, the Jets used cornerback Darrelle Revis in man-to-man coverage on the top receiver, and it launched his Hall of Fame career. Former coach Rex Ryan offered this rationale for the unconventional move in 2009: "I'm going to put this dude on the best damn player and roll my coverage away from him."

"Revis Island" was born. Revis loved the challenge, but in an interview with ESPN last year before his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he admitted it was a "very taxing" style of play. The wear and tear, he believes, shortened his career. He retired at 32.

Gardner, 23, has a long way to go, but he's on a Revis-like trajectory. He wants to be the best ever, which may explain why he's eager to take on more responsibility. As Revis showed, it can be legacy defining. Gardner also will be eligible for a new contract after the season, and perhaps he's looking to maximize his value as he prepares for what could be a record deal for a corner.

"I'm just trying not to get complacent," Gardner said. "It's easy to get complacent when you're seeing stuff on social media. It's just going through life and always having to hear people talk about how [I'm] their favorite player and all of that. I take that, and I just keep trying to find ways to get better because I understand that it's a lot of people watching me, especially the youth."

Related Video