The Lions have added a huge piece to their secondary tonight, agreeing to a new deal to bring in former Saints and Eagles safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN. The contract is reportedly a one-year, $8MM deal with $6.5MM fully guaranteed at signing.
Gardner-Johnson was a versatile defensive back out of Florida, playing at both nickel and safety for the Gators. The Saints selected him in the fourth round, and despite his status as a later round pick, it didn’t take long for Gardner-Johnson to make an impact. He was starting and performing a crucial role on the Saints’ defense by Week 7 of his rookie year. He became a full-time starter in New Orleans after that.
Gardner-Johnson’s ball skills seemed to improve every year. After a rookie season that saw him intercept one pass and break up eight, he improved that in 2020 with one interception and 13 passes defensed. In his final year as a Saint, Gardner-Johnson converted some of those pass breakups into picks, recording three interceptions and seven passes defensed. After being traded to the Eagles days before the season started, Gardner-Johnson became an immediate starter and led the NFL with six interceptions while adding eight passes defensed.
The Lions have made some strong moves to improve a defense that ranked fourth in points allowed while allowing the most yards in the NFL last year. This included allowing the third-most passing yards and the fourth-most rushing yards in the league. While allowing cornerback Mike Hughes and safety DeShon Elliott to walk in free agency, Detroit has reloaded, bringing in former Steelers cornerback Cameron Sutton, former 49ers cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, and Gardner-Johnson.
How Gardner-Johnson ended up in Detroit is a common example of gambling in free agency. According to Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Eagles offered Gardner-Johnson a multi-year contract early in the free agency period. Gardner-Johnson and his agent turned the offer down as they were seeking a higher value. Philadelphia moved past the rejection and signed James Bradberry while extending Darius Slay. This also seems to explain why Gardner-Johnson ended up with only a one-year deal. Apparently unhappy with any of the long-term deals he was presented, Gardner-Johnson opted for a one-year “prove it” deal that would allow him to increase his value for next year’s free agency.
Gardner-Johnson’s arrival in Detroit will be a reunion with head coach Dan Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn. Both were in New Orleans at the same time, with Glenn coaching his position group with the Saints. So not only did the Lions get one of the top-remaining free agents available, they also signed one they were very familiar with.