After breaking down the top quarterback prospects in the 2022 NFL Draft, we turn to cornerback, a position that is expected to be deep yet again. Derek Stingley, Jr. is the top cornerback in next year’s draft class, but he is likely to be a top 5-7 pick. Because he is not a likely target for the Steelers, we will move to the guy who many people have pegged as the number two cornerback in next year’s class. That person is none other than Ahmad Gardner.
I know what you all are thinking. It’s cornerback, the likely cause of Kevin Colbert’s baldness and the definite cause of high blood pressure for Steelers fans. From Justin “Driving in the Fast” Layne (credit to Blunosed Steelhead), to Senquez “The IR Permanent” Golson, to Artie “Third Degree” Burns, the cornerback position in the NFL Draft has been nothing short of a nightmare for the Steelers. After taking Burns and Layne, many fans, including myself, believed that the Steelers were going to implement more press man concepts to the defense.
In 2019, the Steelers began to play more man coverage, but whether it was injuries, constant personnel changes in a covid year, or simply the coaching staff’s decision, the Steelers got away from that in 2020 and went back to the Tampa 2 and Cover 3 schemes that Mike Tomlin has always preferred. We will see if the Steelers get back to more man defense in 2021, but outside of Cameron Sutton, the Steelers have been unable to draft any real contributors at the position in recent memory. Whichever defensive scheme the Steelers decide to play, it is important that they find guys who fit what they are going to run.
Whether we like it or not, cornerback is a likely need for this team next offseason, and there will be plenty to choose from at the position in next year’s draft. As a person who firmly believes in man coverage being the best base coverage to have in the modern NFL, it makes it more challenging to truly get excited about any corner’s potential with this team. I prefer the big, fast, high-upside corners over the little guys that run 4.55 and lack elite physical traits, but in most instances, the big, fast, high-upside corners either get taken inside the top ten or are extremely raw and inexperienced in zone coverage, making them a bad fit for a defense run by Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler. Just look at Justin Layne. Considering that we do not exactly know which scheme the Steelers plan to run, we will begin the cornerback breakdowns with a guy who has had success in both man and zone concepts.
Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner played his high school ball about an hour from where I live and was one of the top collegiate prospects in this region. Considered by most as a three-star recruit and a top 30 prospect in the state of Michigan, Gardner helped lead Martin Luther King High School to a Division 3 State Championship Game victory, contributing as both a wide receiver and a cornerback. He recorded two crucial receiving touchdowns in that championship game. As a freshman at Cincinnati, he was named First Team All-AAC, recording three interceptions and six passes defended. He duplicated those numbers last season in only nine games, putting him into the first-round conversation in early 2022 NFL Draft talks. He now heads into his junior season with the expectation of being one of the top cornerbacks in the country. Gardner has set the highest standard possible for himself this season, as evidenced by one of his quotes during an interview with Pro Football Network:
“My main expectation is to be the #1 shutdown corner in all of college football, which I think is easy to do.”
I’m not so sure that it is “easy to do,” but you have to love the guy’s confidence and positive demeanor. I am hoping that he backs it up this season.
The first thing you notice about Gardner is his lanky frame. Gardner was listed at 6’2”, 159 pounds coming out of high school, but he has bulked up to 188 pounds and may be able to add even more weight before next year. Gardner hass excellent instincts and situational awareness, which helps him make plays in zone coverage. He takes good tackling angles, but adding more weight to his frame will help him bring down thicker, sturdier receivers and running backs in the open field. I also like his ball awareness. There were several plays on tape where I thought Gardner could have intercepted a pass but either dropped the ball or mistimed the jump, but when his back is to the ball, he does a great job sensing when to put his long arms up to deflect the ball. I also love Garner’s physicality. He gives receivers nothing for free and makes them work just to get off the line of scrimmage.
However, that physicality sometimes comes back to bite him. He gets his share of holding and pass interference penalties, and many of them are completely unnecessary. That aggression sometimes causes him to trail receivers down the field if he does not win at the line of scrimmage. That issue exposed another problem in his game, which is long speed. If not for a few underthrown balls, Gardner’s numbers would not have been as good last season. On several occasions, the receiver would beat him at the line, but the quarterback would underthrow the ball by two or three yards, allowing Gardner to catch up and make a play on the ball. I also have concerns about Gardner’s change-of-direction speed. He seems to play a bit tight in the hips, which is not uncommon for a corner coming out of college. That said, it is an issue that needs to be fixed if he wants his full potential to be unlocked.
Again, I want to thank Jacob Bost for cutting up these clips. He will be helping with the cornerback breakdowns just as he did for the quarterbacks. The first play we are going to look at is this pick six against UCF that gave Cincinnati the win. Gardner is barely visible on the bottom of the screen.
Gardner reads this one from the beginning. It is a quick one-read pass by the quarterback Dillon Gabriel, and Gardner keeps his eyes on him all the way. Right once he sees Gabriel begin his throwing motion, Gardner closes in on the receiver and cuts in front of him for the interception. Even if Gardner cannot improve his long speed to keep up in press coverage in the NFL, his instincts will allow him to have success when playing farther off the line of scrimmage.
The next three plays are against Memphis. We will now see how Gardner does when playing closer to the line. Gardner is at the top of the screen.
Memphis receiver Calvin Austin III beats Gardner to the inside, and when Austin cuts upfield, Gardner knows he is going to get burned. He grabs Austin to avoid getting torched over top and gets called for holding. One issue I have noticed in Gardner’s game is his inability to consistently get good position against wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. He lets receivers get the inside track too often, and when he is unable to get his hands on smaller receivers at the line, they can generally create separation against him when cutting upfield.
Gardner is in man coverage against Austin once again on this play.
This is a good no-call in my opinion, partially because I am not sure it was a catchable ball in the first place. Austin is just a tiny receiver, and Gardner knows that he should easily be able to win with his physicality. This time, Gardner is able to get his hands on Austin a bit sooner. Gardner’s first move off the line of scrimmage is a little quicker on this play as well, and that is what makes the difference. He is able to go stride for stride with Austin, and the small receiver cannot overcome the aggressive, physical play of the long cornerback.
Gardner remains on Austin in the following clip.
Austin makes a fantastic inside move to separate from Gardner, but length makes the difference here. Gardner recovers nicely and turns his head at exactly the right time. He knows that he has safety help coming his way over the top, and when Gardner sees the ball in the air, he tries to cut underneath and intercept the ball. He is able to break up the pass but unable to come away with the interception. Sauce’s length combined with the instincts to sense when the ball is being thrown puts him in position to make a play. If he can use those tools correctly in his pro career, hopefully he will capitalize on more of them than he has through two years in college. I think we now know why he is a cornerback and not a receiver. Six interceptions in two seasons is not bad, but he had a chance to haul in several more.
The final two plays are against Boston College. Gardner is at the bottom of the screen in man coverage.
This is just good old man coverage. It isn’t anything fancy or complicated. Gardner simply stays stride for stride with the receiver and gives him no free room. This is the coverage I love to see. When you can stay with your receiver like this in man coverage, very rarely are you going to give up anything.
Here is the last play. Gardner is to the top of the screen.
Gardner is in man once again. This time, he loses about half a step on the receiver, but the ball is slightly underthrown, and Gardner is able to gain back the ground he loses and swat the ball away. Sauce loses ground on receivers more often than what I would like to see, but he generally makes up for it with his excellent length. Half a step, like this play, is no big deal for someone with his length. However, faster receivers in the NFL may be able to take advantage of this style of play. It is not a major issue now, but it is something to keep an eye on once he is in the NFL.
NFL Comparison: Chris Gamble
Selected in the first round by the Carolina Panthers when I was only one year old, Gamble had a very underrated career. Gamble added weight once he got to the NFL but was about 6’1”, 190 pounds headed into his final season at Ohio State, which is very close to what Gardner would currently measure in at. Gamble did not have top-end speed, but he was a good athlete overall and could cover a lot of ground. I feel as if much is the same with Gardner, who is actually a better tackler than Gamble but very similar as a cover corner.
Not only was Gamble was unafraid to get physical with receivers when playing close to the line, but he also displayed tremendous ball skills, which resulted in twenty-seven career interceptions, thirteen of which were in his first two seasons. Gardner plays a more physical brand of football than Gamble, but Gamble took advantage of more interception opportunities than Gardner has thus far. When Gamble had a chance at an easy interception, he rarely messed it up. Gardner is already one of the best corners in college football, but capitalizing on those turnover opportunities is an area that he could afford to improve in this season. Gamble only played nine seasons in the NFL, but if Gardner can play at the level Gamble did in the NFL, he could become one of the top cornerbacks in the league in short order.
How would he fit with the Steelers?
This is going to be the most difficult part of each cornerback breakdown, because the athletic profile that I prefer is not what generally fits the Steelers’ zone-heavy scheme the best. Gardner is more experienced in man coverage, but he seems comfortable playing farther off the line and keeping his eyes on the quarterback as well. I am no expert when it comes to disecting defensive schemes and deciphering the minor differences in each coverage, but Gardner’s experience in both aggressive and conservative schemes makes him a potential fit in any defense. However, it is clear that Gardner is still raw. Most collegiate corners are, which is why it can be a tricky position to evaluate. He has lots of potential as a boundary cornerback, but I want to see improvement and consistency before I hop on board the Ahmad Garner hype train. He will have a chance to prove himself against several tough opponents during Cincinnati’s 2021 season.
But what do you think of Gardner? If you were the GM, how high would you be willing to take him? How do you think he would fit with the Steelers? Be sure to light up the comment section with your thoughts on this and all things 2022 NFL Draft!