This would be a tough blow to Gardner-Johnson’s hopes of using this season as a platform to command a better contract in free agency. Gardner-Johnson signed a one-year, $6.5MM deal with the Lions in March, doing so after the Eagles had expressed interest in keeping him. Though, Gardner-Johnson said no firm offer came his way from the defending NFC champions.
Losing Gardner-Johnson would deliver a substantial blow to the Lions’ defense as well. The team struggled for most of last season defensively and loaded up on DB investments this year. Gardner-Johnson followed Cameron Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley to Detroit, and the team soon drafted Brian Branch in the second round. Branch and Gardner-Johnson offer similar skillsets, as safeties with extensive slot experience. The Lions began the season with Branch at nickel and CJGJ at safety.
A full tear would point to Gardner-Johnson missing the rest of the season. A strain or a partial tear keeps the door open for a return. Though, these reports generally do not bring good news for injured players, and the Detroit News’ Justin Rogers notes this “is not looking good” for Gardner-Johnson.
The fifth-year defender played 97% of Detroit’s defensive snaps in the overtime loss to Seattle. The team would have the option of moving Branch to safety. The Alabama product came off the draft board as this year’s top safety, though he played extensively at nickel in Nick Saban’s program. Branch also impressed at nickel this offseason, moving the Lions to scrap a rumored plan of returning Gardner-Johnson to nickel — his primary Saints spot — after he had moved to safety for the Eagles.
Detroit does have Tracy Walker, whom it re-signed in free agency last year, and Will Harris as experienced reserves. The Lions previously moved Harris from safety to corner, but Sutton and Jerry Jacobs operate as the team’s perimeter starters. Moseley, who is finishing up a recovery from an October 2022 ACL tear, has yet to debut for the Lions. Gardner-Johnson had joined Kerby Joseph as the team’s starting safeties, though Joseph missed Week 2.
Walker has made 37 career starts and re-signed with the Lions — on a three-year, $25MM deal in 2022. Walker, however, suffered a torn Achilles in Week 3 of last season. Losing his starting job upon returning, the sixth-year vet has played just nine defensive snaps this season.