The Detroit Lions signed veteran defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson this offseason to be a Swiss Army Knife of sorts for their defense.
Over the course of his four-year career, Gardner-Johnson has played mostly in a slot corner role, but after being traded to Philadelphia last season, he played the majority of his snaps at free safety (443 vs. 208 in the slot and 202 in the box) and tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions in just 12 games played.
In Detroit, Gardner-Johnson is reuniting with Aaron Glenn, who was his defensive backs coach in New Orleans and is now the defensive coordinator with the Lions. The last time the two were together was in 2020, when Garner-Johnson saw 685 of his 861 snaps (79.6 percent) in the slot, compared to just two as a free safety.
During last week's first open OTA practice, Gardner-Johnson was playing both a deep safety role, filling in for Tracy Walker (Achilles), and a slot corner role. When Walker returns, which he hopes will be training camp, the expectation is for Gardner-Johnson to see more time in the slot. Glenn said they are going to leave their options open when it comes to how they'll deploy the versatile Gardner-Johnson.
"He's going to play nickel and safety and he can do both," Glenn said.
Wherever Gardner-Johnson lines up, the Lions are expecting him to be an impact playmaker. He has recorded 10 interceptions over his last three seasons, and opposing passers have a 70.3 passer rating throwing his way over the last three seasons combined.
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"I just feel like when you get the chance to do multiple things and you're not just limited to one you can really just express your football personality more," Gardner-Johnson said after signing a one-year deal in Detroit in free agency. "I got a chance to go play nickel, I'm going to dominate nickel. I got a chance to go play safety, I'm going to dominate safety. No matter where you put me, it's going to go down all game."
It's a new-look secondary for Detroit in 2023 after general manager Brad Holmes spent considerable resources trying to upgrade it. Along with Gardner-Johnson, the team signed veteran cornerbacks Cam Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley and drafted versatile defensive back Brian Branch in the second round. That unit also gets a boost with Walker coming back. He played in just two and a half games last season before tearing his Achilles in Week 3.
"The pieces they brought in are pieces that really fit who we are as a team first and foremost," Glenn said. "Can do the things we need to do defensively as far as being able to play man and play zone. Really smart guys. Really tough guys. Every piece they brought in fits us to a tee and that's probably more important than anything."
The offseason training program and OTAs are allowing Glenn and the Lions to see where all the pieces fit and what combinations will give them the best results come September. One thing that's becoming pretty clear already is Gardner-Johnson figures to be a big part of it as a position-versatile playmaker.