It’s not with every prospect that you get a chance to watch them play in high school. For me, I got a chance to watch Sauce Gardner on more than one occasion. While he was still “rough around the edges” from an NFL Draft perspective, he was one of the best players on the field in the Metro Detroit area.
Listed as a three-star recruit, he seemed to make a play whenever the Detroit King offense needed one. Coming out of high school, he weighed 163 pounds and it was clear that he needed to add some muscle and weight to his frame but Gardner showed potential. He just needed to find his fit on the field and the opportunity to prove himself.
Despite having offers from schools such as Kentucky and Iowa State, he chose Cincinnati and since then he’s developed into one of the top defensive backs in the country. Now listed at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, Gardner will send his talent to the NFL after declaring for the 2022 NFL Draft. He finishes his collegiate career with 99 total tackles, nine interceptions, and 16 pass deflections. After holding Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams to one catch for -2 yards in one of the most anticipated matchups of the season, we take a look at why Sauce Gardner is the top cornerback for the 2022 NFL Draft!
Running routes with receivers
One of the most intriguing skills you’ll see from a defensive back is when they’re able to run in stride with a receiver. More often than not, that’s what you’ll find when you see Gardner on the field for the Bearcats defense. This would describe the reasoning behind him not allowing a single touchdown in coverage during his entire collegiate career.
While watching the play above, the quarterback doesn’t throw in the direction of Gardner (top of the screen) but his eyes do look at the corner route being ran from his receiver. For Gardner, the former high school receiver essentially runs the route with the Hoosiers receiver. This forces the quarterback to work to his left, extend the play beyond the pocket and force a pass that gets broken up.
During the same game against Indiana, Gardner is in man coverage with the Bearcats showing a Cover 1 look on defense. While the receiver runs the crosser over the middle of the field, Gardner gets in the hip pocket of the receiver and runs over the middle with him to prevent the quarterback from even considering making an attempt at throwing the football in his direction.
While the Hoosiers come out in a trips left formation with the play above, this puts Gardner on an island at the top of the screen. Despite being in a one-on-one match-up, the quarterback throws the fade route. With the outside release and the push vertically up the field, Gardner opens his hips towards the sideline and prevents any potential release inside.
With his speed, he runs in stride with the receiver and pushes him toward the sideline. By doing this, he gives the quarterback a small passing window and this forces the ball to be thrown up for grabs but in reality, it turns into the ball being thrown away.
Quick feet and through the hands of the receiver
The clips you’re seeing are littered through the tape of Sauce Gardner. He consistently runs with receivers, shows hip fluidity and quick feet. One of my favorite traits that he possesses is how he plays through the hands of receivers to break up passes. You can see him putting his long arms to good use every time. This past season, he earned an 87.2 coverage grade (per PFF) on 482 coverage snaps (career-high).
Watching Gardner here on the boundary, you can see him transitioning quickly from his square stance in press to quickly flipping his hips and staying in the hip pocket of the receiver. It consistently showed on the clips earlier and it shows again here on this play.
Aside from watching his hips, you can see how quick his feet are and how he explodes off his outside foot to quickly run over the middle of the field. Lastly, the ball is thrown from the receiver and you can clearly see Gardner throwing his long arms through the hands of the receiver to break up the pass.
Rather than running over the middle of the field, you can see Gardner preventing a throw towards the sideline on the boundary. He’s square to start and flips his hips toward the receiver who gives an outside release. In the process, he presses the receiver closer to the sideline and as the receiver attempts to come back towards the quarterback, Gardner remains in phase while lowering his pad level.
Sticky in coverage, this gives a very little window to complete a pass. The ball is thrown high but if it was able to be caught, I’m fairly certain, Gardner would have shown off his athletic ability to compete at the catch point and find a way to break the pass up.
Blitzing and tackling ability
One of the things that caught me off guard the most when watching Sauce Gardner was how effective he was when blitzing. This past year, he had as many sacks as he did interceptions with three total sacks. In addition to that, he had five total pressures. While it’ll be tough to generate these pressures as the corner to the field side but it would be a benefit for a defense to send him off the boundary or out the slot. With his speed and burst upfield, it’s possible for him to make some game-changing plays in the backfield.
Watching the play above, you can see Tulsa aligned in a trips right formation and on the boundary is Gardner. It looks as if he’s going to be the usual press-man corner that he is but once the ball is snapped, he flies into the backfield and brings down the quarterback.
On the next clip, you’ll see Gardner back to the boundary. This time he flies to the line-of-scrimmage to meet Kyren Williams as he navigates through traffic. While in the process of making the tackle, you’ll see as Gardner starts to break down, he starts to leave his feet behind him and lunges toward the runner rather than running through him.
One key area in that Gardner can improve his game is his tackling ability overall. On runs to the outside towards his direction, he will move backward with the receiver rather than consistently attack upfield. But he does have his fair share of misses. This past season, he had six missed tackles (per PFF) and has had 13 missed tackles over the course of his career. Maintaining good form when tackling should help him moving forward.
Lastly, I want to focus on two things with this last play. Watch how quickly he diagnoses the swing pass to the running back but also watch how quickly he closes to the running back. While he turns his body towards the slant route being run by the receiver he’s matched up on, he reads the eyes of the quarterback and quickly reacts to the running back coming out of the backfield. He’s able to stop and meet the running back for a minimal gain. The one knock on him for this play is that he’s tackling high rather than low but ultimately, it’s a good play that forces third down.
When you look at this cornerback class, it’s a very good one with a lot of intriguing names and loads of talent. Going into this college football season, Derek Stingley Jr., from LSU was the consensus top cornerback and he still could be for some evaluators. The one difference between the two players is that Sauce Gardner doesn’t have a lower-body injury that could re-occur over time.
That doesn’t mean he’s untouchable and can’t ever get hurt but going off what we know, it’s a boost of confidence in knowing that Gardner doesn’t have any glaring injury concerns.
Aside from that, you can look at his tape and see a talented cornerback that has the lockdown ability, athleticism, and ball skills desired to be a top cornerback at the next level. While he’ll get knocked for having a thin frame and not always following through with his technique in run support, that can improve.
Most teams will view him as a boundary cornerback as that’s what he’s primarily played for the Bearcats. He might get a shot to play to the field side more often but regardless, his skill-set translates to being a shutdown defender in the NFL. That’s the reason behind why Sauce Gardner is the top cornerback for the 2022 NFL Draft.