The Saints’ defensive back equation includes two new safeties, has two recent Day 2 draftees and is anchored by perennial Pro Bowler Marshon Lattimore. But a former fourth-round pick is set to carry a substantial workload.
C.J. Gardner-Johnson is on track to reprise his role as New Orleans’ slot cornerback, a job at which he has become one of the game’s best. The fourth-year veteran is entering his contract season, and he looks to be joining the hold-in trend. Gardner-Johnson is reducing his training camp workload as he aims to secure a new deal, Nick Underhill of NewOrleans.football reports (on Twitter). This move comes after Gardner-Johnson stayed away from the Saints’ voluntary offseason workouts.
It is not clear by how much Gardner-Johnson will tamp down his practice work, but players have laid out the hold-in game plan since the 2020 CBA made holding out much more difficult. Derwin James, Diontae Johnson and Roquan Smith are staging hold-in efforts, while D.K. Metcalf and Deebo Samuel began their respective training camps doing so. Metcalf and Samuel’s efforts resulted in quick extensions. The other three players here have not been rewarded yet. In Johnson’s case, it is unclear if the team plans to do so.
Gardner-Johnson, whom Pro Football Focus rated as the NFL’s No. 5 slot corner, played 626 defensive snaps last season. A midseason foot injury led to an IR stay, but the plus defender/high-end trash talker returned to help New Orleans’ finish — one that included a Week 15 shutout win in Tampa. Gardner-Johnson’s 24 plays on the ball from the slot lead the league since 2019, when the Florida alum entered the league. He finished with a career-high three interceptions in 2021 and posted a career-best mark in passer rating allowed as the closest defender, holding quarterbacks to a collective 67.7 mark.
The Saints have some notable cash allocated to their secondary, which includes a few veteran contracts. However, only Lattimore — at $19.4MM per year — is tied to a big-ticket deal. Both Tyrann Mathieu and Bradley Roby are attached to mid-tier accords at their respective positions.
Slot corners also are not presently expensive. Gardner-Johnson’s decision follows Kenny Moore lobbying for a raise earlier this offseason. While Moore is participating fully in Colts camp, the Pro Bowl slot and Indianapolis are not close on terms. Slot players are still maxing out below the eight-figure-per-year mark. It would seem that status will change soon, with Moore’s contract year coming in 2023. But Gardner-Johnson could get there first, depending on how the Saints value his skillset.