Sauce Gardner has a great chance of becoming a star at some point in the future. But will he be dominant in his very first season?
Chosen fourth overall in the 2022 NFL draft, New York Jets rookie Sauce Gardner is widely expected to become a high-level NFL cornerback someday. However, cornerback is one of the toughest positions in the NFL for a rookie. We typically see young corners take a few years before they become the player they will be throughout their prime.
Take Darrelle Revis, for example. The legendary Jets cornerback gave up 748 yards in his 2007 rookie season, which ranked as the 13th-most in the NFL and turned out to be the worst mark of his career. His 87.5 passer rating allowed would turn out to be his second-worst mark, beating only his 2016 season with the Jets.
So, it’s fair to expect that Gardner will go through some rookie lumps before reaching the beginning of his prime in either 2023 or 2024.
But Gardner drastically raised expectations for his rookie year with an outstanding preseason run. In three games, Gardner dropped into coverage on 24 snaps and was not targeted a single time – the most coverage snaps without a target of any cornerback in the NFL this preseason. His consistent proficiency in both man and zone coverage was extremely admirable.
Was Gardner’s standout preseason a sign that he is ready to become a star from the get-go? Or should Jets fans still be prepared for Gardner to endure some year-one growing pains?
Let’s take a look back at the recent history of rookie cornerbacks to set some fair expectations for Gardner’s rookie year.
2021 rookie cornerback production
Collectively, rookie cornerbacks were burnt toast in 2021.
Rookie corners allowed 836 completions on 1,183 targets (70.7%) for 9,994 yards (8.4 yards per target), 62 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions (3.1-to-1 ratio). That’s a passer rating of 106.6, well above the NFL average of 90.8 on all pass attempts.
However, the numbers are far more respectable if you only look at the corners who were drafted in the first round:
- Eric Stokes (Packers, 29th pick, 645 coverage snaps)
- Patrick Surtain (Broncos, 9th pick, 533 coverage snaps)
- Greg Newsome (Browns, 26th pick, 410 coverage snaps)
- Jaycee Horn (Panthers, 8th pick, 95 coverage snaps)
- Caleb Farley (Titans, 22nd pick, 37 coverage snaps)
The five first-round corners combined to allow 143 completions on 253 targets (56.5%) for 1,739 yards (6.9 yards per target), 10 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions (1.7-to-1 ratio). That’s an 81.1 passer rating.
Those are solid numbers. If one player accumulated those numbers in a season, he’d probably be considered somewhere around a top 20-to-25 corner (low-end CB1).
For Gardner, that would be an excellent jumping-off point for his career. He’d provide a strong immediate impact in 2022 while setting himself a high floor going forward. Having a rookie season of that caliber would give him a very realistic chance of springing into the elite tier with a year-two leap.
Surtain was the best player of this bunch, showing that it is certainly possible for a rookie corner to accumulate top-flight production. He allowed 49-of-85 passing for 560 yards (6.6 yards per target), 3 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions. His allowed passer rating of 69.7 ranked 8th-best in the NFL out of 82 qualified corners.
Here’s what should excite Jets fans regarding Surtain: Like Gardner, Surtain had an outstanding preseason. Surtain allowed 1-of-4 passing for 12 yards on 34 coverage snaps across three preseason games. It turned out to be a sign of things to come for Surtain. Will the same be true for Gardner?
Stokes and Newsome enjoyed solid rookie seasons, but from a production standpoint, they were not as impressive as Surtain. And sure enough, their preseason performances were not as impressive, as they combined to allow 5-of-7 passing for 91 yards. Farley struggled in his extremely limited regular-season playing time and also had a shaky preseason beforehand.
It’s worth noting that this group’s numbers would likely be even better if Horn stayed healthy for the entire season. Horn allowed only one catch over his first three games before missing the rest of the year. Just like Surtain, Horn’s rookie success was foreshadowed by an impressive preseason run. Horn allowed 0-of-5 passing in his direction over two preseason games.
If you’re willing to consider Horn a rookie stud based on his small sample size, then he joins Surtain as 2-of-5 first-round corners who were fantastic right off the bat. Horn and Surtain had dominant preseasons while the other three corners did not. This is stellar news for Gardner.
2020 rookie cornerback production
The 2021 season was a good one for first-round corners. But if we go back one more year to 2020, the picture is not nearly as promising.
There were six corners drafted in the first round of the 2020 draft:
- A.J. Terrell (Falcons, 16th pick, 607 coverage snaps)
- Jeff Gladney (Vikings, 31st pick, 543 coverage snaps)
- C.J. Henderson (Jaguars, 9th pick, 270 coverage snaps)
- Jeff Okudah (Lions, 3rd pick, 266 coverage snaps)
- Damon Arnette (Raiders, 19th pick, 216 coverage snaps)
- Noah Igbinoghene (Dolphins, 30th pick, 188 coverage snaps)
These six corners combined to allow 250 receptions on 353 targets (70.8%) for 3,457 yards (9.8 yards per target), 21 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions (7.0-to-1 ratio). That’s a 118.2 passer rating.
Okudah is the scariest warning sign from this class as it pertains to Gardner. Like Gardner, Okudah was a top-five pick, being selected third overall. He was arguably an even more highly-regarded prospect than Gardner. Yet, despite all of the hype, Okudah had a woeful rookie year in which he allowed 38-of-50 passing for 578 yards (11.6 yards per target).
Terrell broke out in his second season and became one of the best corners in the NFL, but he’s the only member of this group who took a major leap in Year 2.
The biggest issue in regards to the 2020 class’s predictive value for Gardner is the fact that we do not have preseason production to look at (due to the lack of a preseason that year because of COVID-19). Regardless, this group’s ghastly production is a clear warning that rookie years can be tumultuous for corners no matter how talented they may seem.
2018 rookie cornerback production
I skipped the 2019 class since it only had one cornerback drafted in the first round, which wasn’t even until the 30th pick (Deandre Baker).
The 2018 draft featured three cornerbacks in the first round:
- Denzel Ward (Browns, 4th pick, 540 coverage snaps)
- Jaire Alexander (Packers, 18th pick, 461 coverage snaps)
- Mike Hughes (Vikings, 30th pick, 159 coverage snaps)
Hughes had a tough rookie year (112.4 passer rating), but Ward and Alexander were instant-impact studs, setting the stone for them to become stars in the future.
Ward and Alexander combined to allow 95 completions on 161 targets (59.0%) for 1,113 yards (6.9 yards per target), 5 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, culminating in a passer rating of 77.5. Ward ranked 6th-best out of 78 qualified corners with an 83.6 coverage grade at Pro Football Focus while Alexander ranked 22nd with a 73.0 grade. They only committed a combined total of five penalties.
Once again, we see a correlation regarding preseason performance. Ward allowed only 36 yards on 6 targets over three preseason games, earning a solid PFF coverage grade of 69.8. Alexander earned a 90.8 coverage grade at PFF over three preseason games.
So, how good will Sauce Gardner be in 2022?
Looking at the performances of first-round rookie corners in recent years, it seems clear that there is a wide range of possibilities. These guys have been anywhere from atrocious to great.
What’s promising for Gardner is that we saw a correlation between preseason and regular season production among the corners in the sample we studied today. Players like Surtain, Horn, Ward, and Alexander flashed their star-level talent in the preseason and then became immediate plus-starters in the NFL.
Thanks to his exquisite preseason, the odds of Gardner producing at a “good starter” level this year are looking strong. By that, I’m talking somewhere around the top 15-to-20 range. He should be able to land in that tier at the very least.
It seems unlikely that Gardner will be a superstar this year – it’s just so rare for rookie corners to play at that level, or rookies at any position for that matter – but I expect him to be a productive starter who sets himself up for a leap to stardom in Year 2.