INDIANAPOLIS — Being a versatile player is is the best way for a player in the NFL to make themselves indispensable to the team.
According to Florida safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, he is the most versatile defensive back in this 2019 NFL Draft class — and he may not be wrong.
"I'm the most versatile DB in this draft. That's how I feel,” Gardner-Johnson told reporters on Sunday at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine. “I'm not doubting nobody else; that's just how I feel from where I've been in the past at Florida and what I put on tape."
A safety in title, Gardner-Johnson can line up anywhere — two-deep, single-high, in the slot, in the box and even outside.
"It's big because you can put me anywhere. I'm not limited to one position,” Gardner-Johnson said about the importance that versatility plays in his game. “I can be used in base, in nickel. In the nickel, I can cover down in the slot, be in against the post, come off the hash and that half of the field. I can do anything coaches put me at no matter where I go."
Gardner-Johnson has a nose for the football, whether it’s flying in to make a hard tackle or tracking the ball as it makes its way downfield to make an interception.
His instincts, ability to diagnose the offense and his read-and-react timing gives him the potential to be a special player in the NFL. He processes the opponent quickly and closes in just as fast, also showing the ability to change direction in the blink of an eye.
He says his production and football IQ are the result of both countless hours of film study and just natural playmaking ability.
"It's a lot of film study, but it's always been natural to me. More of it is film study — you've gotta study your opponent, you can't just go out there and play,” Gardner-Johnson said. “So, I've got a lot of instincts and I've played the game for a long time, so I've gotta do what I've gotta do."
In coverage when guarding players on short and intermediate routes, Gardner-Johnson doesn’t give up an inch when allowing catches.
He’s a sure tackler, and he’s accurate in placing his ankle/shoestring tackles. A lot of defensive backs just fly at a runner’s feet, but Gardner-Johnson actually takes them down at a good rate. Although he’s a sure tackler, however, he’ll sometimes miss the ball carrier and slide by when he doesn’t get to square them up and is approaching from an odd angle.
FIT WITH THE COLTS
Gardner-Johnson could fit into just about any defense seamlessly, but the Colts could especially utilize his abilities.
It’s not uncommon for the Colts to have three safeties on the field at once — often in their dime package. It’s partly due to injuries and having to fill in for each other, but in 2018 the Colts had five safeties average at least 20 defensive snaps per game.
Whether he matches up best in the defensive backfield or near the line of scrimmage in coverage, Gardner-Johnson would be able to get playing time, even if he wasn’t starting as a rookie.
An added bonus to his game is that he’s capable of rushing the passer, closing in on the quarterback in a hurry whether it's from a blitz or he's tracking a quarterback who's escaped the pocket. The Colts value the ability for defensive backs to blitz. For example, Colts cornerback Kenny Moore II set a new franchise postseason record for sacks in 2018 with 3.0, blitzing at a high rate in the last few games of the season.
The Colts are also interested in team-first players, and that’s exactly what Gardner-Johnson is.
"It's a disrespect to your team. You started with them, you might as well finish it with them (instead of) planning on leaving,” Gardner-Johnson said regarding players who skip bowl games in preparation for the draft. “That was my motto. I just want to be with my team, and that's the only thing I was thinking about at that time."
Also preferring not to give reporters many details on meetings he’s had with teams at the Combine, the incoming rookie appears to value privacy among the team and locker room.
Gardner-Johnson is arguably the the best, most complete safety in this class and has not been talked about enough to this point in the pre-draft process. Although he didn’t play outside with near as much volume, the many hats that Gardner-Johnson has worn for his team is reminiscent of players like Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James that we’ve seen come out recently.
If you ask Gardner-Johnson how long it will take until he’s the best defensive back in the National Football League, he’ll give you a direct answer:
“Until I get drafted.”