Last season, the Philadelphia Eagles ranked 25th in Defensive DVOA, Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted efficiency metrics. More than the travails of quarterback Jalen Hurts and anything that was happening with Philly’s offense, it was the defense, led by Jonathan Gannon, which tripped the Eagles up in 2021.
General manager Howie Roseman, who’s always been aggressive to a fault, did everything he could in the subsequent offseason to improve things. Roseman and his staff, including head coach Nick Sirianni, added edge-rusher Hasson Reddick, cornerback James Bradberry, linebacker Kyzir White among the pool of current NFL players, and took Georgia defensive tackle/small planet Jordan Davis and Davis’ college teammate, Nakobe Dean, early in the draft.
On Tuesday, Roseman continued to add to that haul with the trade for former New Orleans Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.
So, if that defense doesn’t show a lot more force in 2022, Roseman certainly isn’t to blame.
Regarding Gardner-Johnson more specifically, we at Touchdown Wire ranked him as the NFL’s second-best slot defender for the 2022 season. Tyrann Mathieu, who was his Saints teammate for approximately five minutes, ranked first. While it would have been fun to see CGJ and the Honey Badger wreaking havoc in Dennis Allen’s awesome defense, Gardner-Johnson is set to be a massive factor in what Roseman and everybody else in the Eagles’ organization believes to be the kind of defensive overhaul that can pay immediate dividends at a championship level.
Let’s get into why that’s the case.
Winning from the slot.
(Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports)
The Saints somehow stole Gardner-Johnson in the fourth round of the 2019 draft out of Florida, where he clearly put up first- or second-round tape. However it happened, it was very good for the Saints.
In his third NFL season, Gardner-Johnson allowed 36 slot catches on 51 targets for 386 yards, 286 yards after the catch, one touchdown, three interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 71.5. The degree of difficulty in the Saints’ high-rate man coverage (only the Chiefs had more pass defense snaps in Cover-0, Cover-1, and 2-Man last season than New Orleans’ 238) amplified Gardner-Johnson’s on-field work, and the tape turned it up to 11.
On this interception of Tom Brady in Week 15, Gardner-Johnson (No. 22) trailed Scotty Miller all the way across the field in tight man coverage, and never let his target get away. The interception was a formality; the technique was the reason for it.
Last season, Avonte Maddox was the Eagles’ primary slot defender. Maddox was okay in that role, allowing 58 catches on 79 targets for 442 yards, 255 yards after the catch, two touchdowns, one interception, and an opponent passer rating of 89.7. The second-most slot snaps for the Eagles last season? That responsibility was on Anthony Harris, who the Eagles just released. Maddox is a decent slot defender, but he is not in Gardner-Johnson’s class, and as much as Gardner-Johnson actually plays a pure slot role in Gannon’s defense, this is a major upgrade.
Moving to more of a safety role.
(AP Photo/Tyler Kaufman)
Per Tom Pelissero of the NFL Network, the Eagles may have a position switch in mind for the newest member of their team.
In Philadelphia, Gardner-Johnson is expected to be a full-time safety – a position that’s become far more lucrative than the nickel spot he often played in New Orleans.
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) August 30, 2022
Part of the reason the Saints traded Gardner-Johnson was that they reportedly thought it would be easier to do so than to finish negotiations on a long-term second NFL contract. If the Eagles move him to more of a safety role, that would be good for Gardner-Johnson’s bank balance over time.
Of course, in today’s NFL, when we talk about safeties, we’re talking about players who are asked to do more things than ever before at the position, It’s exceedingly rare for a strong safety to spend all his time in the box, killing slants and blowing up run fits. And free safeties aren’t just hanging back in the deep third, waiting to erase everything there.
Gardner-Johnson did play some free and strong safety roles with the Saints, but they were never a major part of his palette.
There was this play against the Packers in Week 1, where Gardner-Johnson moved to the deep third in the Saints’ Cover-3, and got a bit turned around by receiver Randell Cobb on the deep over route. Cobb showed a straight vertical stem before he crossed, and it looked like Gardner-Johnson was biting on that. Which was good for a 32-yard reception on Green Bay’s side.
Gardner-Johnson's versatility will make all the difference.
(Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports)
The Eagles do have excellent recent experience taking a former Saints defensive back and turning into a do-it-all force. In 2014, they signed ex-Saints DB Malcolm Jenkins, who was a free agent, to a three-year, $16.25 million contract that included $8.5 million guaranteed. Which turned out to be an all-time bargain. Over the next six seasons, Jenkins presaged today’s do-it-all defensive backs, playing about equally in the box, in the slot, and at free safety.
I was able to watch tape with Jenkins in 2015, and here’s what he had to say about positional adaptability in general.
The versatility of players is at a premium now, because it’s all about matchups. I learned early that the more you can do, the longer you’ll last in the league,” he told me. “At the rate guys get injured in the NFL, you need somebody who can learn and know and play multiple positions at a high level. It seems like every year, the body types and the skill sets of the positions change.
We used to have a lot of small, quick, agile cornerbacks. And all of a sudden, receivers got bigger, so the corners are getting bigger. You need 6’1″, 6’2″ corners who are 200 pounds, and those small corners are becoming extinct. Safeties used to be big guys who could tackle and hit, almost like a linebacker, and could only play in center field. And then, tight ends became more athletic, almost like receivers, and now you need these more hybrid bodies at the safety position. You’ve got guys who are forced into coverage more—they’re more athletic.
From my favorite anonymous Twitter account, written by someone who used to work in the NFL, and is specifically familiar with the Eagles:
You’re carrying someone vertical most of the time and it takes real coverage ability to either pass it off to the deep safety or continue in what is essentially man coverage.
— Honest NFL (@TheHonestNFL) August 30, 2022
Here’s one example of Gardner-Johnson carrying a receiver upfield from the slot on a no-matter-what basis, albeit in Cover-3. Against the Jets in Week 14. he took receiver Jamison Crowder from the defensive left slot through the deep crosser in what was basically a MEG/match “man everywhere he goes” philosophy. That safety P.J. Williams could have carried Crowder through as a handoff from (relatively) underneath didn’t matter to Gardner-Johnson; he had it on blast through the route.
The Eagles may be ready to field a championship defense.
(Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)
All these new pieces in Philly’s defense reminded me of something else Jenkins told me in 2015, after the Eagles performed a similar defensive exorcism. Jenkins was basically the only starting holdover in the secondary in 2015. I asked Jenkins about the challenges in putting all those new pieces together in a way that would work on the field.
One, it was on the players—not understanding what wins and loses in this league. At the end of the day, in the secondary, you just can’t have the ball go over your head. You can’t give up big plays. We were the worst in the NFL at giving up big plays (in 2014), so even if we just sat back and let teams complete curls and comebacks against us, you don’t lose football games because of that. You lose games because the ball goes over your head, and we just continued to get ourselves in the hole.
I think the other part of it was that from a coaching standpoint, and in the defensive back room, we just never put the pieces together. This year, we took more responsibility as players for keeping the ball in front of us, and Cory Undlin, our new defensive backs coach, focuses on giving us the tools to actually go and do that on the field. We’ve seen a huge difference not only in how our secondary plays, but in how much success we have in taking these big plays out of the game.
Last season, the Eagles allowed just 18 completions of 20 or more air yards, but they also gave up four touchdowns to one interception on those deep passes. The 2021 Saints gave up 23 deep passes, but had five interceptions taken to go with their five touchdowns allowed.
So, while allowing big plays in the passing game isn’t the biggest issue for Gannon and his staff to deal with in 2022 and beyond, it’s one part of a defense that didn’t work as well as it needed to.
Now, with all these new players on board, and with the addition of Gardner-Johnson specifically, the Eagles have a defense that at least hypothetically will be able to do a great many more things at a much higher level.
And in the end, that’s what aggressive player acquisition is all about.