Sean Payton‘s first free agency period in Denver has produced a few big-ticket signings. The former Saints coach is now looking into one of his former players for what would be a fourth major move as Broncos HC.
The Broncos are one of the teams interested in C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Aaron Wilson of KPRC2 reports (on Twitter). The Eagles wanted to retain the fifth-year defensive back ahead of free agency, but he hit the market and is fielding interest.
The Eagles traded for Gardner-Johnson just before last season, acquiring the ex-Saints slot cornerback and moving him to safety. Gardner-Johnson proceeded to tie for the NFL interceptions lead, notching six thefts despite missing five games. The Eagles are understandably keen on ensuring the 2022 trade investment does not bolt after one season. The team has lost its other starting safety, Marcus Epps, along with Javon Hargrave, T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White from its Super Bowl LVII-qualifying defense.
Payton coached Gardner-Johnson for three seasons, stationing the renowned trash talker in the slot. Gardner-Johnson functioned as New Orleans’ primary slot defender for multiple seasons. Months after Payton’s New Orleans exit, the former fourth-round pick could not come to terms with the Saints on an extension. That led to the trade. CJGJ will not come cheap, being one of the top options left available. He will not turn 26 until December.
Denver’s most lucrative defensive contract resides at Gardner-Johnson’s position, with Justin Simmons being the league’s sixth-highest-paid safety. Simmons, who also missed five games last season, shared the 2022 INT lead with Gardner-Johnson. The Broncos have not re-signed Kareem Jackson, a three-year starter for the team but a player who is going into his age-35 season, and have used 2021 draftee Caden Sterns as their backup. Veteran K’Waun Williams remains under contract for the Broncos in the slot.
February 16th, 2023 at 10:15pm CST by Sam Robinson
Set to begin its fourth decade of existence, the franchise tag remains a valuable tool for teams to keep top free agents off the market. This year’s tag window opens at 3pm CT on Feb. 21 and closes at 3pm CT on March 7. The NFL released its franchise tag figures — regarding the non-exclusive tag, at least, which will apply to all but one possible tag recipient — earlier this month, and teams are busy budgeting for free agency.
The legal tampering period opens March 13, with the new league year (and official free agency) starting March 15. Once a player is tagged, he has until July 15 to sign an extension with his respective team. Absent an extension agreement by that date, the player must play the 2023 season on the tag (or go the Le’Veon Bell/Dan Williams/Sean Gilbert route, passing on guaranteed money and skipping the season).
With high-profile free agents weeks away from hitting the market, here are the players who figure to be tagged or at least generate conversations about a tag ahead of the March 7 deadline.
One of the most obvious tag candidates since the tag’s 1993 debut, Jackson has been extension-eligible since January 2021. He and the Ravens went through negotiations in 2021 and 2022, negotiating into the season two years ago and stopping talks before Week 1 — a Jackson mandate — of last season. The self-represented quarterback has declined multiple Ravens offers in this span and failed to finish a season for the second straight year. The endless extension drama and rumblings of team frustration about Jackson’s failure to return from an ankle injury aside, the team will tag the former MVP.
Baltimore GM Eric DeCosta said last month he had not decided on using the exclusive or non-exclusive tag — the former preventing teams from talking to the QB, the latter opening the door to offer sheets — but a recent report suggested the team is more likely to roll the dice by using the non-exclusive tag. This would allow another team to sign to Jackson, 25, to the fully guaranteed deal he covets (in a transaction that could send two first-round picks Baltimore’s way) but also hit the Ravens with just a $32.4MM cap hit.
With the Browns collecting three first-rounders and change for Deshaun Watson, the Ravens would almost definitely want more than the two-first-rounder haul attached as baseline compensation for franchise tag offer sheets. But an exclusive QB tag is expected to check in beyond $45MM; this would severely restrict the Ravens in free agency.
Criticized by some for turning down the Chiefs’ six-year, $139MM extension offer in July 2022, Brown stayed healthy this season and earned another Pro Bowl nod. The mammoth left tackle is 2-for-2 in Pro Bowls as a Chief, and although he is not quite a top-tier blindsider, he would be one of this year’s top free agents if permitted to hit the market. The Super Bowl champions are not expected to let that happen. A second Brown tag would come in at $19.99MM, being 120% of his 2022 salary.
Brown, 26, cited insufficient guarantees in the Chiefs’ July proposal, which contained $38MM guaranteed at signing and $52.25MM guaranteed in total. The total guarantee figure trailed only ex-Ravens teammate Ronnie Stanleyamong tackles, while the full guarantee would have placed Brown fourth at the position. Brown turning down that proposal brought risk, and some in the Chiefs organization expressed frustration with the talented blocker. But the former Ravens right tackle’s bet on himself still appears to be paying off. This will be a crucial offseason for the Chiefs and Brown. A third tag — 144% of Brown’s 2023 salary — in 2024 would be viewed as untenable, sending him to free agency on the Kirk Cousins/Trumaine Johnson path. That makes July 15 a fairly firm deadline for Brown and the Chiefs.
After Las Vegas’ new regime passed on Jacobs’ fifth-year option, he became the first Raider to win the rushing title since Marcus Allen in 1985. Jacobs led the NFL in touches in 2022 (393) but was never a primary ball-carrier at Alabama; the former first-round pick should still have some tread on his tires. Running back extensions have become popular but divisive in recent years. While Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara and (for now) Ezekiel Elliott are attached to deals worth at least $15MM per year, the Raiders can tag Jacobs at just $10.1MM.
Jacobs, 24, has expressed a desire to stay in Nevada, and Josh McDaniels and GM Dave Ziegler want to continue this partnership as well. With many quality running backs on track for free agency, new deals could be finalized before the Raiders become serious about Jacobs negotiations. Whether that happens this year or not, the former first-round pick is unlikely to reach the market.
After early-offseason extension rumblings, the Commanders did not move too far in this direction last year. They re-upped Terry McLaurinand let Payne play out a contract year. But Payne turned 2022 into a platform campaign that stands to make him one of this year’s top free agents. The Commanders are soon to have $26MM in additional cap space, by moving on from Carson Wentz, and the team will likely give strong consideration to keeping Payne off the market. The defensive tackle tag costs $18.94MM. Washington has begun Payne talks, but those are still in the early stages.
Washington has some mouths to feed on its defensive line, with both Montez Sweat and Chase Young now extension-eligible. The team already paid Payne’s Alabama and Washington D-tackle teammate, Jonathan Allen, and drafted another Crimson Tide interior rusher (Phidarian Mathis) in Round 2 last year. Mathis went down in Week 1, and Payne broke through for an 11.5-sack, 18-TFL season. A tag here is not an open-and-shut tag case, but it would be a tough blow for the Commanders to see their sack leader walk. Regrouping with Payne, 25, would make more sense, especially with the team not preparing to spend big at quarterback this offseason.
Seeming likelier by the week, a Pollard tag would keep an emerging playmaker with a light career workload in the fold. The Cowboys are believed to be strongly considering a tag here, even with Ezekiel Elliott‘s bloated contract on the books. Elliott taking less to stay — it would need to be a lot less — has already been floated, opening the door for his better-performing (in recent years, at least) backup to stick around on the $10.1MM number or via an extension.
It would be strange to tag a backup, but Pollard, 25, is essentially a Dallas starter. He matched Elliott with 12 touchdowns in 2022 and smashed his career-high scrimmage yards number with 1,378. Pollard’s 631 career touches rank just 24th among backs since 2019, pointing to a few prime years remaining on the horizon. With Elliott’s cap number near certain to move down from its present $16.7MM place and Pollard not at risk of seeing his fractured fibula affect his 2023 availability, the former fourth-round find should be back in Dallas.
Passing on Jones’ fifth-year option — an understandable decision, given Jones’ first three seasons — leads the Giants to one of the more interesting free agency quandaries in recent memory. After making Saquon Barkley a higher priority regarding in-season extension talks, Big Blue’s new regime has come around on Jones. The former No. 6 overall pick piloting the Giants to the divisional round for the first time in 11 years transformed his value from where it was entering the season, and GM Joe Schoen all but assured the fifth-year passer will be back with the team in 2023. Will that be on a long-term deal or via the tag?
If the Giants and Jones, 25, cannot find common ground before March 7, the tag will likely come out. The team encountered this situation with Leonard Williams in 2021 and tagged the trade acquisition for a second time. That preceded a monster extension. The Giants probably should be careful here, with two late-season matchups against a porous Vikings defense boosting Jones’ value — to the $35MM-per-year range. But the team also should be eager to see Jones in Brian Daboll‘s offense and surrounded by better pass catchers.
A Giants team that battled injuries and bad investments at wide receiver relied on Barkley for much of 2022. Losing the two-time Pro Bowler for nothing will bring considerable risk. Jones sitting atop the Giants’ to-do list may be a pivot from the midseason point, when Schoen referenced a Barkley tag. A positional value-based course change could send Barkley to free agency.
The Giants are believed to have offered Barkley a deal in the $12.5MM-per-year neighborhood, and while the former No. 2 overall pick cited his injury history (21 missed games from 2019-21) in saying he is not looking to reset the running back market, Schoen noted the sides’ 2022 negotiation did not come close to a deal. Barkley, 25, is believed to be seeking a contract near McCaffrey’s $16MM-per-year market-setting price. A $14MM-AAV compromise could be in play, but Barkley may also be keen on testing the market.
Tagging Jones at $32.4MM would clog the Giants’ cap ahead of free agency, whereas as a Barkley tag ($10.1MM) would not drain the team’s funds on the same level. Barkley can make a case he is worthy of the McCaffrey-Kamara tier, given his production (when healthy) and versatility — and the salary cap jumping nearly $30MM (to $224.8MM) since those stars’ 2020 extensions were finalized. But the Giants are not yet prepared to go much higher than the $12MM-AAV range — the second tier for running backs. Jones talks not producing a deal would put the Giants to a decision; Barkley could become one of the most talented backs to hit free agency.
While Barkley is a better player, Jones has become the Giants’ top priority. Tagging the quarterback would be far more expensive than cuffing Barkley. A Jones extension/Barkley tag scenario remains the best Giants path, but that can only come to fruition if Jones agrees to terms before March 7.
With Joe Burrow now extension-eligible, new contractual territory awaits the Bengals. Tee Higgins is also eligible for a new deal, with Germaine Pratt weeks away from free agency. Vonn Bell, a three-year Bengals starter who is also nearing free agency, would be a cheaper alternative at safety to keeping Bates on a second tag. Cincinnati also drafted potential Bates heir apparent Dax Hill in the first round. This all points to the Bengals letting Bates walk — as they did defenders Carl Lawson and William Jackson in 2021 — but the former second-round pick is still one of the league’s top safeties.
The Bengals and Bates never came close on an extension last year; the team’s conservative guarantee policy led to an offer of $16MM guaranteed at signing. While player personnel director Duke Tobin said last summer renegotiations this year will not be off the table, Bates will likely hit the market. The five-year Cincinnati starter, who will turn 26 next week, can be re-tagged at $15.5MM.
The Bucs tagged Chris Godwin in each of the past two years and prioritized retaining their core players above all else during that span. But, with Tom Brady‘s void-years money hitting the Bucs’ cap in 2023, a Dean tag will be difficult to pull off. The Saints moving from $75MM-plus over the cap in February 2021 to creating room for a Marcus Williams tag, however, shows how teams can go from cap hell to carving out tag space. That said, Brady’s $35.1MM hitting the cap pushes the Bucs past $50MM over the 2023 salary ceiling.
Dean, 26, has been one of the team’s top players. The former third-round pick grades as Pro Football Focus’ No. 11 overall cornerback from 2020-22. This still looks like an unlikely proposition, with the corner tag at $18.14MM, but it should not be considered completely off the table.
Tight ends Mike Gesicki, David Njoku and Dalton Schultz received tags in 2022, and the tight end tag again checking in as the third-cheapest ($11.36MM) this year makes the Jaguars keeping Engram off the market a logical step. The former Giants first-round pick broke through on his one-year Jags pact, filling a longstanding void for the franchise. Engram’s 766 receiving yards set a Jacksonville single-season tight end record. With mutual interest believed to exist, a tag as a bridge to a summer extension — ahead of Engram’s age-29 season — is a scenario to watch here.
The Eagles traded two Day 3 draft picks for Gardner-Johnson and moved him from corner to safety. After the ex-Saints slot defender led the NFL in interceptions, he will be in line for a payday. New Orleans and Gardner-Johnson, 25, could not come to terms last summer, leading to the trade, but Philadelphia wants to retain the imported DB. The Bengals kept Bates off the market last year with the safety tag, which checks in at $14.46MM this year. Given the volume of defenders the NFC champions have set for free agency, this looks like a longer-odds scenario.
Jones’ statistical production would not be in line with a tag. The talented defensive lineman has yet to surpass 6.5 sacks or 11 quarterback hits in a season, but the former third-round pick has offered consistency and earned praise from the front office. Following the Broncos’ decision to trade Bradley Chubb, GM George Paton identified Jones as a player the team wanted to keep. The advanced metrics also view Jones fondly; Pro Football Focus charts the former third-round pick in the top 20 for pressures since 2019. Jones is believed to be a higher priority compared to guard Dalton Risner, a fellow Denver free agent-to-be.
Sean Payton‘s team using a $19MM tag on a non-Pro Bowler would be risky during an offseason in which the draft capital-poor team — thanks to the Payton trade requiring a 2023 first-round pick — faces a key free agency stretch. Jones, 26, sticking around should also depend on whom the Broncos hire as defensive coordinator.
Buffalo defensive stalwarts Poyer and Tremaine Edmunds are ticketed for free agency, but with the NFL still grouping rush- and non-rush linebackers together under its tag formula, Edmunds is not a realistic tag candidate. The linebacker tag ($20.9MM) trails only the QB price. Poyer, 31, is coming off his first Pro Bowl season and has been one of the Bills’ steadiest players in the Sean McDermott era. Signed during McDermott’s first offseason, Poyer has inked two Bills contracts. He angled for a third, eventually agreeing to an incentive package, and became indispensable during a season in which the Bills lost Micah Hyde to a September neck injury and saw Damar Hamlin face one of the scariest health issues in NFL history in January.
Hamlin aims to return, while Hyde is under contract. But a Bills defense that has seen inconsistency at corner for years could still use Poyer. If the parties cannot strike a deal before March 7, the $14.5MM safety tag may not be too steep here. That said, the Bills may try to avoid a tag and save some free agency dough for Edmunds.
A $32.4MM quarterback tag does sound too steep for Smith, his Comeback Player of the Year award notwithstanding. The Seahawks traded Russell Wilson on March 8, 2022; they re-signed Smith to a one-year, $3.5MM deal on April 14. That low-cost, incentive-laden accord effectively illustrated the NFL’s view of the former second-rounder. While Smith’s stunning season upped his value tremendously, it still seems unlikely the franchise tag will come into play. A transition tag — worth $29.5MM and involving no draft compensation — would be a more logical move.
But the top tag has been floated as a Smith-Seattle scenario. The sides have begun negotiations, and Smith’s camp figures to factor the tag salaries into the talks. This process still feels like it will end in a Smith medium-term deal. But after a 30-touchdown pass season that also included an NFL-high 69.8% completion rate, the 32-year-old passer setting a high price as the tag deadline nears would force the team to consider cuffing its starter.
After trading for a veteran defensive back in a contract year, the Eagles now have a month to keep C.J. Gardner-Johnson off the market. They intend to pursue that path.
The NFC champions are expected to make a push to bring back the versatile defender, Mike Garafolo of NFL.com notes (video link). The Eagles have a number of high-profile players on the cusp of free agency, and Gardner-Johnson saw his Saints extension talks not produce a resolution. But re-up talks should commence soon.
Philadelphia traded a 2023 fifth-round pick and a 2024 sixth-rounder to the New Orleans for Gardner-Johnson just before the season and moved the ex-Saints slot cornerback to safety upon acquiring him. Gardner-Johnson, 25, started throughout his Eagles walk year and should command an upper-echelon safety deal.
The former fourth-round pick missed time due to a lacerated kidney this past season, requiring an IR stay. Despite missing five regular-season games, Gardner-Johnson still led the NFL with six interceptions. Pro Football Focus did not view his safety work on the same level as his slot performance, ranking the fourth-year defender just inside the top 50 at his new position. But it will still be costly for the Eagles to extend the acclaimed trash-talker.
Howie Roseman‘s GM tenure has included trades for players in contract years. The Eagles did so in 2022 and came to terms with A.J. Brown on a record-setting (guarantee-wise) receiver accord. Gardner-Johnson should not be expected to command a deal in the Derwin James–Minkah Fitzpatrick neighborhood, but his second contract comes at a time in which many of his teammates are also on the verge of free agency.
Some of these players are Eagle institutions, so it is difficult to imagine them playing elsewhere. The team, however, has younger free agents to take care of and a quarterback contract to address. The team is expected to begin Jalen Hurtsextension talks soon. Hurts’ Super Bowl LVII performance only enhanced his value, which stands to affect some of the veteran presences on the franchise’s most recent Super Bowl squad.
Philadelphia is getting some help on defense as it looks to secure the NFC’s No. 1 seed heading into the postseason, according to the team’s official Twitter account. The Eagles have activated safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson and defensive end Robert Quinn from injured reserve today. To make room on the 53-man roster, Philadelphia placed linebacker Shaun Bradley and defensive end Janarius Robinson on IR. Lastly, the team signed punter Brett Kern to the active roster from the practice squad.
Gardner-Johnson will return in time for the playoffs after a lacerated kidney sidelined him for the past five games. The unusual injury put a pause on a career year for the fourth-year safety. After being traded from New Orleans just prior to the start of the regular season, Gardner-Johnson started every game for the Eagles alongside Marcus Epps before getting placed on IR following the Week 12 injury. At the time of his placement on IR, Gardner-Johnson led the NFL in interceptions with six through 11 games. His presence in the defensive backfield will provide a big boost for a team who has had their sights set on the postseason all year.
The Eagles pass rush has been just fine without Quinn but that’s not to say it won’t benefit from a reunion. Philadelphia leads the league in sack total, and frankly, it’s not very close. Quinn had yet to add to the team’s sack total before finding himself on IR, but it’s hard to imagine that defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon isn’t excited about the aspect of adding a pass rusher who was pushing for a season total of 20 sacks as recently as last year.
Bradley and Robinson being moved to IR is a small price to pay for the return of Gardner-Johnson and Quinn. Bradley is a core special teamer who has yet to appear on defense this season for the NFC’s current top seed. Robinson was signed off the Vikings’ practice squad early in the year but has yet to appear in a game this season.
Kern has served as the team’s punter for the last three weeks as Arryn Siposs has been on IR. The long-time Titan has been serviceable on special teams for Philadelphia, showing that he can be depended on for the postseason.
After back-to-back losses that have kept them from locking up the NFC’s No. 1 seed, the Eagles will have some reinforcements in Week 18. Both C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Robert Quinn may be back in uniform.
The Eagles designated the veteran defenders for return Wednesday, NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport tweets. Both will be eligible to suit up against the Giants, should the Eagles activate them ahead of the Saturday deadline.
A lacerated kidney sidelined Gardner-Johnson back in November. Despite going down in Week 12, the late-summer trade acquisition remains tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions. The Eagles have options with Gardner-Johnson upon return.
Having used the former Saint as a safety before his injury, the Eagles could deploy Gardner-Johnson in the slot. Avonte Maddox suffered a significant toe injury in Week 16. Considering Gardner-Johnson worked as New Orleans’ top slot corner for multiple seasons, Philadelphia has a quality backup plan. This will be a key stretch for Gardner-Johnson, but he has already proven to be a fit with his new team. The fourth-year DB’s rookie contract expires after this season.
Philly’s pass rush has hummed along without Quinn, but the midseason trade piece can provide some rotational assistance for the league’s sack leaders. Quinn, 32, has not missed quite as much time as Gardner-Johnson, undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in early December. The Eagles had the thrice-traded edge rusher ticketed for a late-season return, and it looks like Quinn is close to being ready to go.
The Eagles have registered 68 sacks this season — 39 more than they totaled in 2021. That number is close to a long-held NFL record. In the season prior to the Bears’ 18-1 rampage to Super Bowl XX, their 46 defense compiled 72 sacks. Although the Eagles have the benefit of an extra game, they have a chance to eclipse that 38-year-old mark against the Giants. Four Eagles — Haason Reddick, Javon Hargrave, Josh Sweat and Brandon Graham — have surpassed the 10-sack threshold. Quinn does not yet have a sack as an Eagle and has just one this season, but the situational rusher did flash pass-rushing potency last year by tallying a career-high 18.5 sacks. That number also broke a 1984 Bears standard, with Richard Dent having held it. As the playoffs near, the Eagles will hope some of Quinn’s 2021 form remains.
Three IR activations remain for the Eagles, but Gardner-Johnson and Quinn represent the 13-3 team’s top two return chips. While it is unknown when Maddox will play again this season, the fifth-year cornerback is not on IR. That gives the Eagles some flexibility as they aim for their second No. 1 seed in six seasons.
Already spending a chunk of this season on IR, Avonte Maddox may be headed back. The Eagles lost the veteran cornerback to a toe injury Saturday, and NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport and Mike Garafolo report the injury is believed to be significant (Twitter link).
The Eagles used one of their IR activations on Maddox earlier this month, and the fifth-year corner played in three games upon returning. Maddox underwent an MRI on Monday and is out indefinitely, per NFL.com. He could go back on IR and return, but the 13-2 team has other players ahead in its IR queue.
One of those is C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who could be an option to replace Maddox in the slot. Gardner-Johnson, acquired via trade from New Orleans this summer, is eligible to return from IR this week. Nick Sirianni stopped short of ensuring that would happen, however. Gardner-Johnson, who has shifted to safety in his first Philly season, is out because of a lacerated kidney. The former Saints slot defender has missed the past four Eagles games.
Maddox and Gardner-Johnson are part of the Eagles’ first-string secondary, joining Darius Slay, James Bradberry and Marcus Epps. Maddox finished with two tackles for loss against the Cowboys. He suffered an ankle injury against the Texans last month and returned from IR when first eligible. It remains to be seen if the Eagles will move him back to IR and/or if this toe problem would allow for a late-season return.
The Eagles can activate three more players from IR this season. In addition to Gardner-Johnson, Robert Quinn is on Philly’s injured list. He is eligible to return in Week 18. Hurts missed Week 16 but is not on IR.
Davis started off his rookie season coming off the bench behind Eagles starting defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave. Philadelphia couldn’t keep the No. 13 overall pick off the field, though, and soon began starting all three players each game.
In Davis’s absence, the Eagles turned to Marlon Tuipulotu until he found his way to the IR, as well, with a torn meniscus. The team then turned to Linval Joseph after signing him and fellow veteran Ndamukong Suh in consecutive days. It’s reasonable to expect Davis to return to the starting lineup alongside Cox and Hargrave in his return, returning Joseph to backup duties with Suh. It’s speculative, but Davis returning as soon as he is eligible could be a strong sign that he is completely ready to return with no lingering effects from the high ankle sprain that landed him on IR in the first place.
Following news that Gardner-Johnson, the team’s starting safety, would be out indefinitely with a lacerated kidney, his placement on IR doesn’t come as much of a surprise. If he can make a speedy recovery, Gardner-Johnson should be eligible to return in time for the final two games of the regular season and a likely Eagles postseason run.
The league’s interceptions-leader will likely be replaced by undrafted rookie out of Middle Tennessee Reed Blankenship. Although it seems like a big downgrade on paper, Blankenship showed his potential almost immediately, intercepting Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers shortly after coming into last week’s game to replace Gardner-Johnson.
In addition to the two IR transactions, the Eagles have also promoted linebacker Christian Elliss from the practice squad as a standard gameday elevation for this week’s matchup against the Titans.
Sunday night’s win over the Packers moved the Eagles to 10-1 on the season, but the team’s secondary will likely be without a key contributor for the time being. Safety C.J. Gardner-Johnsonhas a lacerated kidney, and is out indefinitely, reports Tom Pelissero of NFL Network (Twitter link).
The 24-year-old will not require surgery, but more testing will be required to determine a firm recovery timeline. Pelissero notes that Gardner-Johnson is expected to return at some point this season, while ESPN’s Tim McManus tweets that the Eagles have yet to decide whether or not an IR stint is forthcoming. An absence of any length, though, will be noteworthy for the NFC leaders given his production this season.
The former fourth-rounder spent the first three years of his career in New Orleans, where he saw time both as a safety and slot corner. His five interceptions and 28 pass breakups over that span made him one of the team’s top young players, but a hold-in during training camp led to extension talks breaking down. That opened the door to a change of scenery for the final year of his rookie contract, especially given Philadelphia’s reported interest in adding on the backend of their defense.
The Eagles sent a 2023 fifth-round pick and a 2024 sixth-rounder to the Saints to land the Florida product, a move which has paid immediate dividends. Playing exclusively as a safety, Gardner-Johnson has notched a league-leading six interceptions in 2022, adding eight pass deflections and 60 total tackles. He will be difficult to replace given that level of production, though the Eagles can afford to be cautious with his recovery given their all-but assured place in the postseason. Undrafted rookie Reed Blankenshipwill likely step into a starting role, after he filled in for Gardner-Johnson following the injury on Sunday.
C.J. Gardner-Johnson‘s contract isn’t expected to be an issue in Philadelphia, but it remains to be seen if the Eagles will extend the recently acquired defensive back. As Zach Berman and Bo Wulf write, while Eagles GM Howie Roseman didn’t specifically discuss Gardner-Johnson’s contract status today, he said he would “never want to rule anything out” when it comes to a potential extension.
Gardner-Johnson was only available in the first place because his contract talks with the Saints hit an impasse. As Jeff Duncan of NOLA.com tweets, the player and the Saints were about $4MM apart in negotiations. New Orleans ultimately decided to prioritize other impending extensions and deal from a position of strength, leading to their trade with Philadelphia.
While the impending free agent was pushing for a deal in New Orleans, it’s still uncertain if he’ll get a new contract in Philly. As Berman and Wulf write, the Eagles have “consummated others deals contingent upon a new contract,” so it wouldn’t be shocking if a new deal suddenly materialized. On the flip side, the team also didn’t give up a significant haul (like they did for, say, A.J. Brown), so an extension wouldn’t appear to be a “necessity,” per the writers. Plus, while Gardner-Johnson was negotiating as a slot cornerback in New Orleans, he’s expected to play safety in Philadelphia, which could set him up for an even bigger pay day if he performs well at the position. As a result, the player may just prefer to just hit free agency next offseason.
With Gardner-Johnson now on the roster, the organization had to make some tough decisions at the position. The Eagles ultimately moved on from veteran Anthony Harris, who was released and later re-signed this summer. He was expected to serve as a starting safety, but with the emergence of Marcus Epps and the acquisition of Gardner-Johnson, Harris was ultimately eyeing a backup role. However, Roseman seemed to hint that a reunion could still be in order.
“We felt like since there was a possibility that his role had changed from when we had signed him, that because we were looking at options, he also deserved to kind of look at options himself,” Roseman said. “Obviously, you don’t want to close any doors on anyone or anything right now at this time.”
The Saints are trading one of their top defensive backs to the Eagles. C.J. Gardner-Johnson is heading to Philadelphia, according to Tom Pelissero and Ian Rapoport of NFL.com (on Twitter). The teams have since announced the deal.
It did not take too much in the way of compensation for this trade to go down. The Eagles are sending a 2023 fifth-round pick and a 2024 sixth to the Saints for Gardner-Johnson and a 2025 seventh, Pelissero tweets. The 2024 sixth will be the lower of the Eagles’ two selections in that round.
The Eagles actually see Gardner-Johnson as a safety, Pelissero tweets. He will pair with Marcus Epps, who finished a strong training camp, at the position. A report earlier this month indicated the Eagles could acquire a safety, but Gardner-Johnson has largely excelled in the slot prior to this trade.
This will make for an interesting transition for the fourth-year veteran, especially coming in a contract year. Safety, however, as the Jamal Adams, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James deals have shown, has proven to be a more lucrative position than slot corner.
Tuesday’s deal also marks the third splash trade for the Eagles this offseason; the Saints have now been involved in two of those moves. This trade comes after the move to acquire A.J. Brown and the deal to land a future first-rounder from the Saints. No word about a potential Gardner-Johnson extension has come down. The Eagles could wait here, but Jalen Hurts‘ rookie contract also offers some flexibility. The team also has no notable cash tied to the safety position, having just releasedAnthony Harris.
While Pro Football Focus has rated Gardner-Johnson outside the top 50 at cornerback in each of the past two years, he carved out a regular role amongst a veteran Saints DB corps. The former fourth-round pick has also become known for his ability to rile up opposition — both opponents and teammates, considering Michael Thomas‘ 2020 team-imposed suspension came after he threw a punch at Gardner-Johnson. It will be interesting to see how he fares in Philly.
The Saints have assembled a deep secondary in recent years, and NOLA.com’s Jeff Duncan tweets rookie Alontae Taylor is one of the players — along with Bradley Roby and former slot P.J. Williams — who have worked inside replacing Gardner-Johnson during camp. The team also already has a big-ticket cornerback deal (Marshon Lattimore) in a secondary that also now includes Tyrann Mathieu‘s $9MM-AAV deal.