Sauce Gardner could hurt his overall performance if he deliberately focuses on trying to get more interceptions
By most measures, Sauce Gardner was the NFL’s best cornerback in 2022.
- Named a first-team All-Pro and earned the most first-team votes of any cornerback (43)
- Tied Patrick Surtain for the position lead in Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value metric (14 AV)
- Led the NFL in passes defended (20) and allowed the fewest yards per cover snap of any cornerback (0.56)
- Had the best average ranking across seven of the most important statistical categories among cornerbacks
The only blemish on Gardner’s resume is his relatively low total of two interceptions. This has drawn Gardner the ire of lazy analysts who think it is possible to evaluate cornerbacks by Googling “How many interceptions did [player] have?”, such as Asante Samuel.
Gardner hears the noise. The 22-year-old New York Jets star has admitted that he is challenging himself to get more interceptions in 2023.
And I challenge myself to do the same thang. Along with my coaches. Ion need you “challenging” me to do nothin after all this sub tweeting you been doing when you could of just hit me privately like all the other OG’s do. Safety bro https://t.co/sVCacIUMDf
— SAUCE GARDNER (@iamSauceGardner) July 11, 2023
In my opinion, Gardner needs to be careful with this mentality.
Yes, it would be tremendous if Gardner could add another two or three interceptions to his total next season – and he is fully capable of pulling that off. However, I believe it is something he should avoid actively thinking about or deliberately attempting to accomplish.
Plenty of interceptions will come Gardner’s way if he simply continues to do what he was already doing in his rookie year. If you watch through every target of Gardner’s 2022 season, there really isn’t a play where Gardner should have picked the ball off and whiffed on the opportunity. Perhaps there are a couple of passes he could have intercepted, but if he went for the pick in those instances, he would have greatly increased his odds of allowing a catch.
If you consistently stay tight in coverage, interception opportunities will present themselves, and you seize them when they arrive. But if you try to create your own interception opportunities, it will come back to bite you more often than not.
I don’t think Gardner needs to get more interceptions to be the best cornerback in football, and I fear that if he chases them, it will hurt his overall impact.
Gardner’s focus in 2022 was to prevent his man from catching the ball. He didn’t play with a “ball-hawk” mentality. And it worked out tremendously. Even without a gaudy interception total, no cornerback had a more positive impact on the game than Gardner.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, when Gardner was the nearest defender on a pass thrown beyond the line of scrimmage, opponents generated a total of -27.2 EPA (Expected Points Added). In other words, teams lost an expected value of 27.2 points when throwing at Gardner downfield. That was the best total of any defender in the league regardless of position.
Evaluating coverage impact using EPA is a methodology that favors players with high interception totals, as interceptions are extremely costly in the EPA department. For example, according to PFF, in the 2021 season, the average interception was worth -4.2 EPA for the offense. This means that, theoretically, a player with seven interceptions could beat Gardner’s season total of -27.2 EPA even if the player was merely average across all of his other plays outside of the seven interceptions.
Yet, despite only grabbing two of those uber-valuable picks, Gardner still had a greater overall impact than all of the players who outdid him in the interception department. In fact, most of the top cornerbacks on the interception leaderboard were actually mediocre-to-bad overall.
Here are where the league’s top eight cornerbacks in interceptions (4+ INT) ranked in EPA allowed as the nearest defender on passes thrown beyond the line of scrimmage:
- Tariq Woolen, SEA (6 INT): +1.1 EPA allowed (60th)
- Patrick Peterson, MIN (5 INT): -11.1 (13th)
- Jaire Alexander, GB (5 INT): -15.0 (7th)
- Daron Bland, DAL (5 INT): +2.2 (67th)
- Jonathan Jones, NE (4 INT): -12.1 (10th)
- Rasul Douglas, GB (4 INT): +10.5 (115th)
- Jalen Ramsey, LAR (4 INT): +11.5 (119th)
- Levi Wallace, PIT (4 INT): +13.6 (131st)
Ranks among 169 qualified CB with min. 10 targets beyond LOS
Five of the eight cornerbacks with four-plus interceptions still allowed positive EPA when targeted despite racking up at least four of those EPA-rich takeaways, which are each expected to yield around -4.2 EPA. Even the three who had good seasons – Alexander, Jones, and Peterson – were at least 12 EPA behind Gardner.
How could this happen if interceptions are so exceedingly valuable in the EPA department?
It’s because playing with a ball-hawking mentality at the cornerback position comes with a cost. If you play more aggressively in search of interceptions, there will be more instances where you get burnt as a result of pursuing an interception instead of just making the stop. Everything balances out.
To demonstrate this, let’s use PFF’s estimation of an interception being worth -4.2 EPA and assume that every interception in the NFL last season was worth exactly that. This is obviously not true (some interceptions have a greater EPA impact than others), but for the sake of this article, it’s an easy way to picture the effect that interceptions can have on a defender’s impact in coverage.
Taking a look back at the top eight interceptions leaders we analyzed earlier, here is where they ranked in EPA allowed as the nearest defender on passes thrown beyond the line of scrimmage after removing the expected value gained from interceptions (assuming each one is worth -4.2 EPA):
- Tariq Woolen, SEA (6 INT): +26.3 EPA allowed (161st) – rank with INTs: 60th
- Patrick Peterson, MIN (5 INT): +9.9 (91st) – rank with INTs: 13th
- Jaire Alexander, GB (5 INT): +6.0 (72nd) – rank with INTs: 7th
- Daron Bland, DAL (5 INT): +23.2 (149th) – rank with INTs: 67th
- Jonathan Jones, NE (4 INT): +4.7 (60th) – rank with INTs: 10th
- Rasul Douglas, GB (4 INT): +27.3 (165th) – rank with INTs: 115th
- Jalen Ramsey, LAR (4 INT): +28.3 (16th) – rank with INTs: 119th
- Levi Wallace, PIT (4 INT): +30.4 (169th) – rank with INTs: 131st
Ranks among 169 qualified CB with min. 10 targets beyond LOS
Take out the picks and these guys were largely abysmal. Save for three of them, the interceptions were not valuable enough to cancel out the cost of the big plays that came as a byproduct of their ball-hawking. And, again, even the three that stayed afloat were still nowhere close to Gardner.
The moral of the story: Chasing interceptions is usually a fool’s game.
Gardner was able to outplay the rest of his peers without interceptions because he was so exceptionally dominant on non-interception plays.
Here are the top cornerbacks of 2022 in EPA allowed as the nearest defender on passes thrown beyond the line of scrimmage after removing the expected value gained from interceptions:
- Sauce Gardner, NYJ: -18.8 EPA allowed
- James Bradberry, PHI: -13.7
- Chidobe Awuzie, CIN: -13.5
- Tyson Campbell, JAX: -13.0
- Kader Kohou, MIA: -11.7
- Alontae Taylor, NO: -11.7
- Avonte Maddox, PHI: -11.4
- Darious Williams, JAX: -10.8
- Rachad Wildgoose, WAS: -9.9
- Greg Newsome, CLE: -9.1
The difference between Gardner (-18.8) and second-ranked James Bradberry (-13.7) is 5.1 EPA. That’s greater than the 4.6-point difference between Bradberry and 10th-ranked Greg Newsome (-9.1).
What does this mean? It’s simple: Gardner was so far ahead of everyone else at excelling in coverage without interceptions that he still had the best overall coverage impact despite getting only two interceptions.
Sauce needs to stay patient and keep doing what he’s doing. Most likely, plenty more interceptions will come his way if he does just that. Nothing in his game has to change for him to get more picks.
Interception opportunities are largely up to luck. Gardner should see more opportunities solely through patience. He didn’t get many gifted interception opportunities as a rookie (tips, miscommunications, etc.). But in addition to sheer luck, the infrastructure around Gardner is another factor that should help him snag more takeaways.
In 2023, the Jets’ defense should be able to play with the lead more often due to an improved offense, which should cause New York’s opponents to attempt risky throws far more frequently than last year. This is a huge factor in determining interception opportunities. Consider that in 2022, quarterbacks had an interception rate of 2.6% when trailing compared to 1.9% when leading. There were approximately 2.5 times more interceptions thrown when trailing than when leading (242 versus 97).
And even if Gardner does not get more interceptions, he will be just fine. Again, allow me to reiterate: Gardner was so much better than everyone else at generating positive value on non-interception plays that nobody came close to matching his overall impact – even if they doubled or tripled his interception total.
Sauce Gardner is a unique talent who has the potential to go down in history as one of the best cornerbacks to ever lace them up. My hope is that he doesn’t allow himself to be knocked off course by the need to placate narrow-minded thinkers like Asante Samuel. Yeah, sure, interceptions are great, but Gardner must understand that he is the rare player who doesn’t need a ton of them to still be an elite cornerback.
I would implore Gardner to ignore the naysayers and avoid making a deliberate effort to increase his interception total. If he starts making calculated attempts at getting more interceptions – whether it’s overly focusing on them in practice, fixating on them in the film room, or actually boosting his number of in-game gambles for interceptions – I think he will lose a lot of what made him so special in 2022.