It’s a mammoth achievement to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, an even bigger one to be taken in the Top 5, but when you’re on the precipice of being the highest selected player at your position ever, well that’s on a whole other level.
Cincinnati’s Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner finds himself in that spot. He’s being penciled in anywhere from the No. 2 overall pick to the Lions, to No. 5 to the Giants — with very few believing he’ll fall any further. He’ll be the highest selected corner ever, if that second overall pick holds, but even in the Top 5 he would find himself in very, very rare company.
The weird part about evaluating cornerbacks is that when you watch them on film you almost never want to notice them. A great corner, a truly brilliant one, is measured in how little their name is called or how they just blend into the background. They’re the silent assassins of a defense, influencing a game from the shadows and only noticed in measure of how much someone else is struggling. To this end, Gardner is perfect.
There are some things that stand out in watching Gardner play. He’s a defensive back who relishes being involved wherever possible. Nothing is seemingly beneath him, and on running downs you’ll routinely see him shed his outside block and close in on a ball carrier, even when it appears his teammates have the player under control. This kind of willingness to do anything extends to plays away from his man, where his understanding and football IQ take over. Even when Sauce is playing deep man coverage he’ll read a quarterback’s eyes and have an understanding when the play isn’t going to him, breaking off his man and offering support against another receiver — more often than not being the first player to make contact.
Built like Richard Sherman, paired with Darrelle Revis’ knack for deleting an entire side of the field, it’s easy to see why so many teams are falling in love with Gardner’s potential — especially considering he isn’t a finished product yet.
One of the things that makes Gardner stand out is that he hasn’t been subject to the top-flight SEC defensive coaching that routinely produces so many stars. In the grand scheme of things Cincinnati is a relatively small school, and even without NFL-caliber tutelage he showed remarkable traits. Allowing just 6.6 yards-per-reception in 2021, according to Pro Football Focus, the other stats to his name are simply remarkable.
- Never allowed a touchdown in college
- Allowed 23 receptions in 320 coverage snaps in 2021
- From 2019-2021 quarterbacks posted an average passer rating of 30.4 against him
Sauce is a player who will literally and functionally ruin a team’s day. At worst he’ll absolutely tear up a game plan, take away your biggest weapon, and force an offense to work around him. That’s exactly what he did against Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, and while Cincinnati lost that game badly — it absolutely wasn’t because of anything Gardner did.
You can watch this eight minute video of his work against the Crimson Tide and struggle to find any moments where Gardner was out of position or burned. He only gave up 14 yards on 4 targets in that game, locking down Jameson Williams all day, and he’s going to be a first round pick as well. In the highlights you can routinely see Bryce Young make a read to Gardner’s side, then glance away almost instantly, knowing his man has no chance against the Cincinnati DB. These are top college players we’re talking about, and they knew Gardner was almost impossible to beat.
If Gardner is selected in the Top 5 he will join a very exclusive group. He would be the 10th cornerback in NFL history to be selected that high, and it’s a list littered with legendary players.
- 1997: Shawn Springs (3rd), Bryant Westbrook (5th)
- 1998: Charles Woodson (4th)
- 2002: Quentin Jammer (5th)
- 2003: Terrance Newman (5th)
- 2011: Patrick Peterson (5th)
- 2016: Jalen Ramsey (5th)
- 2018: Denzel Ward (5th)
- 2020: Jeff Odukah (3rd)
Earlier I mentioned there are things Gardner needs to work on, and that’s true of every rookie — but there’s a lot of room for growth here. He’s a very natural and instinctual player, but overall needs more discipline in the way he plays. There were a lot of times Gardner gave up unnecessary holding penalties and pass interference, even when his skill was so great he didn’t need to. I’m willing to chalk these up to getting caught up in the moment, rather than inability, which is a good thing because I think the tendencies can be coached out of him.
The balancing act will be a team preserving that natural ability and skill for the game, and not boxing him up too much while they try to correct some of the roughness around the edges. If that can all be maintained then a team is going to going to get a truly phenomenal player.