By Dylan MacKinnon
It has been 15 years since a cornerback the Eagles drafted made the Pro Bowl. 17 since a corner they drafted made first team All Pro. Both of those were accomplished by Lito Shepard.
Since then, the Eagles have struggled to find their next young star at corner, and have often relied at taking swings in free agency and trades. This have often backfired (see Nnamdi Asomugha, Domonique Rogers Cromartie, Byron Maxwell.) Though it has also worked occasionally, as in with Asante Samuel and now Darius Slay. Still even with Slay, Eagles are in desperate need of another good cornerback, as shown earlier in the week in my article on the Eagles need at cornerback.
And if that is going to be a target of theirs in the draft, and it should, Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner would be well worth a strong look.
The Tape Tells The Story
Gardner’s on field performance tell the story of a true shutdown corner. In over 1,100 snaps at Cincinnati he allowed 0 TDs. None. Zilch. The number one goal of any cornerback is to not allow the other team to score. He accomplished that without a single hitch in 3 seasons. Gardner also has a knack for taking the ball away. He has 9 interceptions, and two pick 6’s in his 3 seasons. Think about that. He has scored more TDs than he allowed.
But stats alone cannot tell the full story. There could be so many variables that would make that number less impressive. Maybe he never played anyone tough to cover. Perhaps the other corners playing with him were easier targets so opposing QBs just picked on them instead. To truly know if those numbers are legit, you have to go to the tape. So lets do that, courtesy of the NFL Networks Daniel Jeremiah.
6’2 CB’s shouldn’t be this loose & fluid! I’m excited to watch Gardner vs Bama tomorrow. His tape is outstanding. pic.twitter.com/9LQ7fd4nXM— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) December 31, 2021
This is just one play. But go over his tape and you will see this same thing again and again. His size, combined with how fluid his movements are in coverage, make him a rare cornerback capable of being matched up with anyone on the field. He has the speed and quickness to stick to smaller speed WRs. But also the size and strength to match up with a more physical WR.
His college coach, Luke Fickell, had nothing but praise for him after it became official he would enter the draft this year.
“I really think he’s going to be a better pro. Even where he went from last year to this year, in his body and his ability to be a pro, take care of himself, work the game a little more and change his body. I think he’s going to grow more. A [coach] who is going to play more coverages is going to play to his strength. He’s a really smart football player.” – Luke Fickell- Head Coach- Cincinnati
The one issue with him heading into the pros to watch out before, is his tendency to be handsy. As we all know, NFL Officials are not shy when it comes to calling defensive pass interference on any given play. His instinct to be physical and stick very close to the WR could get him in trouble occasionally at the pro level.
Beyond that it is his hard to find many flaws in his game though.
Is Lack Of Competition a Concern?
One thing that may give many pause is that he was playing in the AAC. Playing the likes of Temple, Houston, UCF, Tulsa, etc., does not have you crossing path with too many WRS capable of being Pro Bowlers in the NFL. So should we be concerned that he was not playing top level talent in college?
Well to answer that question lets look at what happened when he did face players who were considered great WR prospects, specifically lets look at his performance in the Cotton Bowl this year vs Alabama. He matched up against Jameson Williams, a great prospect in his own right. Before the Bowl game, Williams had 75 receptions, 1,507 yards, and 15 TDs. When matched up vs Gardner, he had 1 catch for -2 yards. The one catch was a attempt at a WR screen Gardner blew up for a loss.
Ahmad 'Sauce' Gardner, aka CB1 pic.twitter.com/iXa1sNfJQu— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) December 31, 2021
He faced perhaps the best WR in the draft, and he did not blink. So I am not concerned that he only performed well because he is in a weak conference.
Getting to Know Gardner
Of course when you draft someone, you are not only drafting the player. You are adding a human being to your team, A human being who could make your locker room either a better or a worse place to be. Far too often fans overlook the human aspect and want a guy who may excel on the field, but whose off the field actions end up hurting the on field product.
So who is Ahmad Gardner? Well one thing you need to know is he does not lack confidence. before this last season, he made a bold claim about where he stands amongst all the cornerbacks in college.
“My main expectation is to be the #1 shutdown corner in all of college football, which I think is easy to do.”
So not only was he saying he is the best shutdown corner. To him, it was not a question. He knew he was, and put his money where his mouth was. He went out and proved he was just that, by allowing 0 TDs all year. And that is the type of attitude you want in your skill players like CBs in WRs. Most of the best Cornerbacks in NFL history had that attitude that they were the best, and they intend to prove it.
But don’t mistake his confidence in himself for being someone who doesn’t think he has to work. When he got to Cincy as a true freshman he was buried on the depth chart. But he didn’t wallow and complain that he was not getting a chance. He did the work, until he got the chance to prove himself. He took it as a chance to humble himself, and improve a player.
“I was like the fifth corner on the depth chart, then had the luxury to be able to play with the twos and potentially be a one. I was always that dude in high school and little league, so being that far down on the depth chart really humbled me a lot.”
He said he spent the time studying the players ahead of him on the depth chart. Learned from them, to make himself a better player. Then he arrived on the scene in the 5th week with a pick 6 in a win vs a UCF team in a 29-2 stretch. And he never looked back. He went on to get First Team All AAC honors in his freshman year.
So he has the confidence to know how good he is. But is also humble enough to know there is still more to learn, and to accept when things don’t go his way immediately. He knew he had to earn a starting spot, and proved he deserved it with his play, and never complained. That is exactly the mentality you want in any player you take. I don’t think you will have any issue from Gardner on or off the field.
What the Experts Say
Don’t take my word on him though, here is what some draft experts think about Gardner
“Highly effective at creating jams at the line of scrimmage in press coverage. His length increases his margin for error and he’s comfortable playing from the trail. Can be trusted in man coverage and he’s mostly sticky staying connected to routes. Highly physical player in coverage. Exceptional run defender and outstanding tackler. Thrives in a variety of techniques including man, press, and zone. Fairly loose for a longer corner and he has quick transitions. Ball production has been outstanding and he showcases the ability to drive forward on the football and make plays with his back to the football.”
“Gardner’s explosiveness, in fact, is one of the more foundational parts of his game. The Cincinnati CB sports an insane burst coming back upfield, and he shows off abruptness in tackling situations. There’s an effervescent twitch in his movement as he’s always amped up. Gardner’s combination of length and closing burst makes him dangerous in multiple phases.”
On paper, Gardner seems like the perfect prospect. The numbers are great. His tape is amazing. He seems like a great young kid. There is very little to not like about him. Some may balk at taking a Corner from a non power 5 team, but he showed up when he played WRs from notable schools as well.
Does that mean he is bust proof? No. We have seen sure things bust in the past. Anytime you take any player no matter how good they were in college there is a chance it does not work out. But he feels about as safe as prospects get.
The Eagles need a corner and he may end up being the best in the bunch. There are other names that will go ahead of him because of the programs they come from, but that could play to the Eagles favor. If he gets over looked because he is from Cincinnati that just means there is a better chance he is on the board when the Eagles make their first pick.
If on draft night they take him with one of their first round picks you will see very little complaints. He seems like the perfect fit for Philly. He even is projected to fit Jonathan Gannon’s Zone heavy scheme. Ahmad Gardner is defiantly a name for Eagles fans to keep an eye on.