NFL draft: Why Cincinnati's Ahmad 'Sauce' Gardner could be one of the first CBs taken

One practice we've utilized after publishing a mock draft is to send it out to NFL scouting personnel for review. Sure, we absolutely speak with talent evaluators prior to writing the mocks. But sometimes, we've found, the best — and most useful — criticism comes after we've projected the first round.

After our most recent 2022 NFL mock draft was posted just before Christmas, we received one pretty straightforward (and amusing) response:

"You forgot the Sauce."

That would be Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner. The Cincinnati corner just missed our first-round cut last time, but the message was received loudly and clearly: That was a mistake.

Yahoo Sports' Pete Thamel reported Tuesday that Gardner is declaring for the 2022 NFL draft, which isn't that surprising. In three years with the Bearcats, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound corner made 99 tackles, intercepted nine passes and deflected 27 more.

But the most stunning stat of his 37-game college career? Gardner never allowed a touchdown catch, per Pro Football Focus. In fact, he allowed only 60 catches on the 138 passes targeted at his man in coverage over three years, including a paltry 131 yards in 14 games this season.

Cincinnati Bearcats cornerback Ahmad Gardner should be one of the first CB prospects off the board in the 2022 NFL draft. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Even with teams often avoiding his side of the field, those are some eye-opening numbers, especially as Gardner typically shadowed opponents' top receivers, played roughly equal snaps on each side of the field and even ventured into the slot at times. In Cincinnati's playoff semifinal matchup with Alabama, Gardner was credited with allowing only 14 yards on three catches (four targets), including one tackle for loss on a screen vs. Bama first-round receiver Jameson Williams.

There are some questions about Gardner's change-of-direction skill and his ability to handle quicker, shiftier receivers. Given his unusual length, he also can play a bit upright at times and isn't quite as fluid flipping his hips as a smaller corner might be.

But overall, Gardner has the instincts and playmaking ability to be a first-round corner, perhaps cracking the top 20 overall picks. Although he possesses a leaner frame, Gardner has worked hard to fill out, has generally tackled well and can get off blocks to make plays in space. He also showed improvement in his blitzing this season, registering three sacks and five total pressures in 11 pass-rush snaps this season.

Gardner's best fit likely is in a press or off-man scheme, or with teams that use a lot of cover-3 zones. His length allows him to reroute receivers off the line and also play the ball effectively in the air at the catch point.

One scout earlier this season compared Gardner, talent-wise, to 2021 Titans first-rounder Caleb Farley (minus the injury concerns).

Assuming Gardner tests well, displaying enough long speed and change-of-direction skills, he could be in the mix for the top few CB spots in the draft, competing with the likes of LSU's Derek Stingley Jr., Clemson's Andrew Booth Jr., Florida's Kaiir Elam and Auburn's Roger McCreary.