It takes a lot for a prospect to be considered a Top 10 pick in the NFL Draft. Not only do they need great tape showing skill, Football IQ, and production, but they also need rare physical traits to entice teams to spend top picks on them.
Cincinnati’s Ahmad Gardner has emerged as the top cornerback on every draft board. Gardner has a rare combination of length, athleticism, and press-man coverage ability. He has smothered passing games throughout the AAC for years, and Cincinnati’s great 2021 season brought “Sauce” Gardner to national attention.
New York Giants Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale uses aggressive press-man coverage as the basis for his defensive scheme. There has quite a bit of speculation that the Giants will use one of their top picks on Gardner to help facilitate Martindale’s scheme, so what kind of player would the Giants be getting?
Prospect: Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner (1)
Games Watched: vs. Indiana (2021), vs. Notre Dame (2021), vs. Houston (2021), vs. Alabama (2021)
Games Played: 33
Tackles For a loss: 5.5
Passes Defensed: 16
Interceptions: 9 (2 returned for touchdowns)
Games Played: 13
Tackles For a loss: 5.0
Passes Defensed: 4
Best: Length, quickness, agility, fluidity, press-man coverage, ball skills, competitive toughness
Worst: Tackling, mass
Projection: A starting press-man corner with Pro Bowl or All-Pro upside.
Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner has a great combination of length, athleticism, competitive toughness, and skills to be a cover corner at the NFL level.
Gardner primarily aligned as an outside corner for Cincinnati’s defense, playing both the field and boundary. He also covered the slot on occasion, suggesting the ability to travel with a designated receiver and not just stay on the outside.
Gardner primarily played man and press-man coverage for the Bearcats and excels in both techniques. Gardner has excellent foot quickness, agility, and “oily” hips, allowing him to get in phase with receivers and stay there throughout their routes. He has enough play strength to jam even bigger receivers and doesn’t allow himself to be bullied at any point in the rep. Gardner has the speed to run down the field with all but the fastest receivers, and the ability to match sharp breaks on timing routes.
Gardner is also a capable off or zone coverage corner, though he didn’t play those techniques often. He is very disciplined in picking up and passing off receivers, and isn’t easily fooled by offensive misdirection. He does a good job of keeping his eyes in the backfield and has a quick trigger on the ball. Gardner has a good closing burst and his length allows him to slam receiving windows shut.
He also has great awareness in both man and zone coverage. He’s quick to come off of his man to defend underneath passes, and has a good understanding of offensive route concepts. Gardner does a great job of avoiding schemed traffic on man-beaters, allowing him to stay with receivers even against rub routes.
Gardner wasn’t asked to blitz often, but he showed upside when he did rush the passer. He disguises his rushes well and is remarkably sudden off the line of scrimmage. Passers didn’t seem to anticipate his blitzes – particularly from the blind side – and he has a good closing burst. Gardner’s speed allowed him to blitz effectively from near the sideline, and he could be an effective slot blitzer.
While run defense isn’t exactly a strength of Gardner’s, his role in Cincinnati’s defense didn’t put him in position to be a primary run defender all that often. When he is on the play-side of a run, he shows surprisingly good technique in taking on blockers and has enough play strength to not get beaten. Gardner is a willing hitter and doesn’t really shy away from contact, either.
The only real weakness in Gardner’s game is his lack of thickness, and by extension, his tackling. Gardner is undeniably whip-thin, and there likely isn’t much room on his frame for more muscle mass without compromising his athleticism. That lack of mass can make shedding blocks and getting runners on the ground problematic for Gardner. Also, while he’s a willing hitter, he doesn’t make good use of his length and often fails to wrap ball carriers up. That creates opportunities for yards after contact, or runners just bouncing off of him (or vice versa).
Overall Grade: 8.7
Sauce Gardner projects as a starting cornerback with scheme versatility and Pro Bowl or All-Pro upside at the NFL level.
While he has the ability to play in just about any coverage scheme a defensive coordinator will call, Gardner’s rare skill set and ability as a man coverage corner practically demands that he spend his career out on islands with receivers.
There are few corners who can boast Gardners length, speed, fluidity, and skill as a press-man corner, and those are exceptionally sought-after traits. It’s a testament to just how good a cover corner Gardner is that opposing quarterbacks consistently avoided him even when his man was their primary read. There are multiple instances of quarterbacks looking in Gardner’s direction, checking another read, looking again, then giving up on that receiver as an option.
When passers did test Gardner, they often failed. He’s very competitive at the catch point and does a great job of using his length to slam windows shut. Gardner’s closing burst allows him to erase separation and his length makes high-pointing the ball difficult at best. He does a great job of playing receivers’ hands and can track balls in the air like a receiver.
That ability to simply rip pages out of offensive playbooks and force quarterbacks to hold onto the ball is why press-man corners are so coveted by NFL defenses.
Gardner isn’t just an outside corner, and he has the ability to move into the slot. That gives a defense options if they have a match-up they like, or if the offense uses a “big slot” who traditional slot corners can’t cover. Likewise, Gardner also has upside as a blitzer, further increasing his appeal to aggressive coordinators. He wasn’t asked to blitz often, but he was effective when he did.
About the only knock on Gardner is his lack of mass and the impact that has on his run defense and tackling. And it does have a significant impact on his grade, dropping it from a great “9.0” down to an 8.7.
Considering how good his coverage is, NFL teams will be willing to deal with that as a weakness given all his other strengths.