The Florida safety could elevate this Dallas defense.
Name: Chauncey Gardner-Johnsonson
School: University of Florida
Weight: 208 lbs
2018 stat line: 13 games, 71 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 4 interceptions, 2 passes defensed
The Cowboys look to be in the market for a talented safety to play across from Xavier Woods in the back end of the secondary. There are some free agents out there that Dallas could look at, but there are also several talented rookies in this draft class. We’ve already scouted Taylor Rapp and Juan Thornhill, but today the player to focus on is Florida’s Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.
Gardner-Johnson was a three-year starter for the Gators, playing all over the field at both safety positions and even as a slot cornerback. He never had less than two interceptions in any of those years. Simply put, Gardner-Johnson is a ballhawk and he knows it. Looking at his 2018 tape, Gardner-Johnson is aggressive when playing the ball and will never not go for the interception, which can be dangerous sometimes. However, he usually made the play in college.
He does his best coverage work in zone, and especially in zones that are closer to the line of scrimmage. He has a quick burst from his stance that allows him break on the ball, but unlike other defensive backs with his athleticism, he doesn’t bite on routes too early in zone coverage but instead is patient and waits until the ball is out of the quarterback’s hand to make his move.
Gardner-Johnson wasn’t used too much as a deep safety in zone at Florida, which is odd because he seems to have good speed and range that would make him a good fit as a center-field kind of guy. His ball skills are also sufficient to where you’d think he could snag a lot more interceptions in the single high spot.
He isn’t as great in man coverage, though, although he’s still better at it than your average safety. His speed and frame give him a high potential as a man coverage defender, especially with the technique Kris Richard teaches, but Gardner-Johnson’s eagerness to make a play on the ball also makes him susceptible to double moves from receivers in man coverage. Most of the big plays he gave up in college were due to that. But better patience and discipline can solve that issue.
With how talented Gardner-Johnson is in coverage, I was surprised at just how talented he is playing the run, too. I didn’t watch tape from his 2017 season but apparently Gardner-Johnson made huge strides in this avenue. He takes really good angles and packs a lot of power behind his hits. He doesn’t regularly miss tackles, but his wrap up skills and hand usage in tackling is only average. Other draft prospects like Rapp and Thornhill are better run defenders, but Gardner-Johnson can more than hold his own.
Gardner-Johnson also showed a distinct ability at rushing the passer as a blitzer off the edge. He had three sacks last year, which is not something you usually see from a safety. Safety blitzes are a thing that Dallas used semi-regularly last year under Richard’s watch, and Gardner-Johnson’s ability to get home on those blitzes is valuable.
Overall, Gardner-Johnson is a versatile talent who can make plays everywhere in the secondary. If the Cowboys were to get him in the draft, he’d pair nicely with Woods, as both have the versatility to play both safety positions, slot cornerback, and come off the line of scrimmage as a blitzer. Richard and Rod Marinelli would have a lot of fun pairing those two together. The question is if the Cowboys will even be able to get Gardner-Johnson, though. I had him being taken at 61st overall in my first three-round mock draft, with Dallas passing on him to take the 3-technique of the future Renell Wren, whose stock has been shooting up.
As the draft process goes on, though, Gardner-Johnson could shoot up draft boards with his athleticism, and he may not even be available at the Cowboys’ 58th pick by the time the draft comes by. However, if the Cowboys determine he is their guy, they’ll probably have to use their second round pick on him as Gardner-Johnson shouldn’t last long.