WATCH: C.J. Gardner-Johnson training to level up in 2021

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John Sigler
·2 min read
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Add C.J. Gardner-Johnson (nom de guerre: Ceedy Duce) to the list of Saints working hard this offseason to prepare for a big 2021 season. Listed as a safety, Gardner-Johnson mainly lined up in the slot for New Orleans’ nickel defense, which was their most frequent personnel package (dime was second-best). And he’s teaming up with a personal trainer whose clients include Darius Slay, Odell Beckham Jr., Danielle Hunter, and his former teammate Emmanuel Sanders, with a goal to be the best nickel in the game.

He’s already on his way. Gardner-Johnson improved across the board in his second season (and his first full year as a starter), especially in slot coverage. Among defenders with 350-plus snaps in that role (where Gardner-Johnson played 401 snaps, third-most in the league) Pro Football Focus credited him with the NFL’s fourth-best NFL passer rating allowed.

But there are areas he can improve, which is why he’s sought out this training. Gardner-Johnson doesn’t have the elite agility to keep up with the sport’s best pass catchers one-on-one (his athletic testing showed good, not great, performance). Refining his footwork to move more efficiently in a phone booth will do a lot to help him keep up with their pace, especially when better athletes than him, like Christian McCaffrey, are moved around the formation in search of a mismatch.

Gardner-Johnson could also improve his tackling. He took a step back in that regard, with PFF dinging him for 16 missed tackles in 2020 (a miss rate of 19.8%) after 7 misses in 2019 (12.9% miss rate). Pro Football Reference had slightly better numbers, with just 11 misses in 2020 (14.3%) after 4 missed tackles in 2019 (7.5%), but that jump is still disconcerting.

So hopefully this extra practice he’s putting in during the spring translates into a better training camp in the summer, and great game tape in the fall. Gardner-Johnson’s star is continuing to rise. If he sticks to the right path and keeps grinding, he could end up becoming another new face of the franchise very soon.