New Orleans Saints created an uproar on Tuesday in response to the team’s decision to trade C.J. Gardner-Johnson to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for a couple of future draft picks, having failed to reach an agreement on a long-term extension with one of their star defenders. Intriguingly, NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reports that the Eagles envision a different role for Gardner-Johnson than what he experienced in New Orleans — Philadelphia sees him lining up as a true safety as opposed to the slot corner role he played for the Saints.
That’s not something Gardner-Johnson has done often in the NFL. He’s primarily covered the slot for New Orleans, lining up there on 15 of his 16 defensive snaps played this preseason alone (prior to that, and more importantly, he’s moved to the slot on 1,452 of his 2,184 career defensive snaps with the Saints, or about 66.5%). So the Eagles are betting on him excelling in more of a box role, which makes sense. Gardner-Johnson has always played his best football when keeping things in front of him.
But as Pelissero noted, there’s a financial aspect to this decision, too. Big-money contracts for slot corners top off at around $7 to $8 million. Top-paid safeties regularly see double-digit salaries (for example, Gardner-Johnson’s former Saints teammate Marcus Williams inked a deal with the Baltimore Ravens bringing in $14 million per year early this offseason). If Gardner-Johnson meets expectations in this role, he’ll stand to earn significantly more money from his new team.
As reported by Nola.com’s Jeff Duncan, Gardner-Johnson’s camp was seeking about $4 million more than what the Saints were prepared to offer — if we tack that onto the maximum of what the best slot corners are seeing now, it suggests an average annual value of around $12 million per year. If Gardner-Johnson successfully plays safety on a full-time basis, the Eagles should have no problem paying that. It just wasn’t in the Saints’ plans, for good or ill.
We’ll see if he goes the distance. The only surety here is that Gardner-Johnson will be missed in New Orleans. Replacing him on the field will be challenging, though the Saints have plenty of options; the bigger loss is his fiery personality that helped set the tone for the team’s best unit.