At roughly the same time the assembled media settled into its designated area Saturday, May 11 inside the New Orleans Saints’ practice facility at the Ochsner Sports Performance Center, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson stepped in front of the intended receiver and intercepted a pass near the right sideline.
Not absolute, total confirmation, because Saturday only was the second day of the Saints’ three-day rookie minicamp, and the team and Gardner-Johnson have thousands of hours to stack before the fourth-round draft pick (No. 105 overall) definitively can earn an NFL label.
But that play, and another – a tipped pass by Gardner-Johnson that wound up in the hands of fellow rookie safety Saquan Hampton – showed some of the skill that the Saints saw in him when they moved up in the draft to select him.
“First thing you notice about him is he has a body that’s built to last,” secondary coach Aaron Glenn said. “He’s a good-built, good-looking kid. Secondly, he’s a really good athlete: He has good speed, good stop-and-start, good quickness. Able to play back deep, and able to play in the box – he’s about 210 pounds, to be about 5-foot-11. He can withstand that punishment in the box.”
Third, Gardner-Johnson is about as multidimensional as a player can be.
“I can play any position,” he said. “They just put me in the right position. It helps me to comprehend the defense and it compliments me, because I played the same type of defense in college (at Florida). I’m still learning it, but I’m taking the process real slow and trying to be as humble as possible, open to anything.”
Truly, he’s not bragging.
When Gardner-Johnson was drafted, his versatility was an asset that spoke loudly to the Saints. In truth, it probably screamed, considering the multitude of ways that Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has conjured to maximize the effectiveness of Saints safeties.
Gardner-Johnson played nickel in college, as well as safety. He moved into the starting lineup as a freshman and in his final season, had four interceptions (two returned for touchdowns), three sacks, nine tackles for loss, two passes defensed and 71 tackles.
“Probably that nickel spot,” Gardner-Johnson said, when asked where he might best fit for the Saints. “I don’t think it’s a weak spot (for the Saints), but it’s something that the league is getting closer to – nickel players. It’s a very diverse position because you play safety, you play inside box, you cover outside. I’d say nickel is the best fit for me with this team, but we’ll see as time goes on.”
You get the feeling that the Saints are somewhat anxious to see.
“It is limitless, what he can do, because he has the speed and the mentality to go out there and play corner,” Glenn said. “He can play nickel, he can play in the box, he can play deep safety. So you have fun with players like that, so I’m excited to see what all we can do with him.
“And plus, he has the mental capacity to be able to take all of that information in and be able to apply it right to the field. Like today, as a young player, he played nickel, he played safety, and we tried to stress him.
“He played safety in base, he played nickel in sub, he played safety in sub, just to see how he would be able to make that transition. ‘I’m a nickel now. I’m a safety in sub. I’m a safety in sub.’ And he was able to do all of that stuff. But I always talk to him after and say, ‘Listen, you’ve got to make that transition now. There’s got to be a shift. I’m in nickel now, or I’m at safety.’ He was able to do that. It was good to see him be able to do that.”
It was much of what New Orleans expected to see.
“He’s smart,” Saints Coach Sean Payton said. “And he’s quickly picked up the installation. He’s had a good couple of days. You can see he’s versatile – I think he can play over the slot in the nickel role, and also play as a safety. He’s taken some one-on-one reps even as corner. He’s got some versatility.”
He also has some confidence. Glenn learned as much when he helped coach Gardner-Johnson’s position a few years ago at The Opening, a national football camp, in Oregon.
“We butted heads early,” Glenn said, smiling. “I got after him quick. I wasn’t a coach, I was just happy to help. My personality came out.
“When we butted heads, I thought that was cool. He stood up for himself.”
The standing continued Saturday, as Gardner-Johnson took on the various roles he was asked to assume.
“It was easy,” he said. “Broke it down, studied it a little bit more and then I go out there and make plays. I was just out there competing, that’s all.”
Get a look inside Day 2 of Saints Rookie Mini Camp 2019 as the new players get to work at the Ochsner Sports Performance Center on May 11, 2019.