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C.J. Gardner-Johnson expects bigger impact as comfort level rises with New Orleans Saints

'You're going to see how comfortable I can really get'

New Orleans Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson warms up before a preseason NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers Sunday, Aug. 18, 2019, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo )
New Orleans Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson warms up before a preseason NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers Sunday, Aug. 18, 2019, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo )

You might not have known this considering the havoc he wreaked, but C.J. Gardner-Johnson was just feeling settled when his rookie season ended.

Sure, the defensive back often tackled like the intent was to knock opponents out, not just down, while earning a reputation as an enforcer. And, true, he was in a groove in terms of smothering intended receivers, displaying the kind of versatility that skirts labels – hence, "defensive back" rather than "cornerback," "strong safety" or "free safety."

But the New Orleans Saints' fourth-round pick in 2019 knew what he didn't know. And he knows how to get better this offseason, even while away from his teammates and training facilities while the nation embraces social distancing and attempts to slow the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I was just getting started," Gardner-Johnson said. "I wasn't comfortable because there were still moments, as a young player, I'd have a mental (error). Now, everybody is like, 'You looked very mature.' Nah, I was nervous more than anything.

"I was nervous my first playoff game, I didn't know how to respond. But I just dive back into what I do and what I know, and just play football, play the game that I know and was taught. It's going to be a good year. You're going to see how comfortable I can really get. I'm just seeing how comfortable I can get at my own mental state, so I can perform better."

The Saints will reap the rewards of it. Because if Gardner-Johnson makes the expected jump from his rookie season – 46 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, eight passes defensed and six tackles for loss – it likely will be impressive to witness.

"With me being uncomfortable, it was more about the stuff that the vets would know that I wouldn't know," he said. "I didn't know some of the things they already knew, so I had to start diving down into stuff."

Note: Discomfort does not translate to personal uncertainty. At least, not for Gardner-Johnson.

"I don't lack confidence at all because when you play the game of football, my Dad always told me everybody puts on their helmet, everybody puts on their shoulder pads, everybody puts on their cleats," he said. "It's just about who's got the heart.

"Forget being comfortable, I've got the heart. So when you've got the heart, it kind of outweighs your comfort because you've got that fire, 'I can't let the next man beat me.' So I'm going in with the same confidence I had last year. It doesn't change."

Probably, the Saints wouldn't want it to.

New Orleans knew exactly the kind of player and person it was drafting when it took CJGJ with the 105th pick. He already had a tie to defensive backs coach Aaron Glenn, who helped coached him at a national football camp in Oregon when CJGJ was in high school.

First, they knew he was versatile, able to play safety and nickel.

"I can play a lot of different positions," he said. "That's where the comfort comes in. I'm comfortable at the positions I play. I just have to dive down a little bit more to get more comfortable with it, because last year was my rookie year.

"I expected to play everything because you never know what they're going to do. You expect to be a No. 1 draft pick and they pick you somewhere else. So, wherever they put me, I say, 'Coach, I'm all in.' I don't hesitate. If they tell me to go play D-line, I'll go play D-line. Go be the kicker – no disrespect to Wil (Lutz) – I will try to be the kicker. I'm just a team player.

"The moment I limit myself will be the moment I will not be a valuable person to any team."

And they knew he was confident.

"I bring that Florida confidence," he said. "Everybody knows how Florida confidence is. And with (cornerbacks) P.J. (Williams) and P-Rob (Patrick Robinson) being from Florida, they've got the older confidence and swag. I got the young confidence coming up now. My teammates like who I am, my coaches like who I am, so I wouldn't even change anything about my confidence right now."

It's just a matter of putting in the work, which Gardner-Johnson is doing on his own, like the rest of the NFL. He got started on his offseason regimen early and hasn't allowed the lack of access to training facilities slow him down.

"After we lost (in the playoffs), I went right into workouts a week after, because I had a bitter taste in my mouth," he said. "And with quarantine, it didn't stop me from working out because when they shut down the training facilities I was training at, and they shut down our facility, I just called my trainer and I was like, 'Listen, I want to keep it going.' I started doing in-home workouts to keep my pace.

"I've been doing little things that I know last year, I could've done better. That's one thing I've been working on, is the little stuff that was costing me. I didn't take a step back, or I didn't take a step forward yet, until I go out there. It's kind of hard when it comes to a halt, so we shall see how my work pays off. But I know it's going to pay off great this year, because I know what's expected of me."

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