Safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson agrees to reunite with Eagles, help bolster secondary


The Eagles have bolstered their secondary with a familiar name. C.J. Gardner-Johnson has agreed to return to his former team, his agency confirmed on Tuesday. The versatile defensive back who was tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions during the team’s run to Super Bowl LVII will sign a three-year deal with Philadelphia worth up to $33 million.

Gardner-Johnson, 26, spent three seasons with the New Orleans Saints before first joining the Eagles in a 2022 trade. He then left Philadelphia last year by signing a fully guaranteed one-year, $6.5 million contract with the Detroit Lions. Gardner-Johnson missed 14 regular-season games with a torn pectoral in 2023, but he returned in time to fully participate in Detroit’s playoff run to the NFC championship.

Gardner-Johnson ranked No. 33 on The Athletic’s list of top 150 free agents. He was a prominent part of a top-rated 2022 Eagles pass defense whose 17 interceptions were tied for fourth in the NFL. He’ll now be part of a revamped scheme under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who must repair a 31st-ranked pass defense that surrendered the fifth-most completions of 16-plus yards last season.

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How he fits

General manager Howie Roseman made a notable admission at the NFL combine. He said the organization knew its “conscious decision” to invest more in the offense meant it would “lose some good players on defense.” He added: “Looking back, we certainly missed some of those guys.”

That Roseman reunited with Gardner-Johnson a year after watching him leave suggests the defensive back was one of the players he was referencing. Gardner-Johnson supplies the Eagles with the turnover-forcing, versatile defensive back they were missing in 2023. His 10 interceptions since 2021 are tied for seventh most among all defenders. He can play safety. He can play nickelback. He’s logged the majority of his career snaps (1,695) in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus. Fangio can deploy Gardner-Johnson in multiple roles in a safety corps that also features Reed Blankenship and Sydney Brown.

2024 impact

The Eagles and their injury-riddled secondary experienced a turnstile at the nickel spot in 2023 and cycled through five starting safeties. The lack of depth provoked Roseman to trade for Kevin Byard, which resulted in a one-year rental.

Will Gardner-Johnson be healthy himself? There’s a reason his contract is laden with incentives that can max the deal out at $33 million. It’s still notable that Roseman extended such a contract to a player who suffered the same injury as Avonte Maddox, 27, who is still exploring his options after missing 13 regular-season games last season with a torn pectoral muscle. But if Gardner-Johnson can remain healthy — a critical if for a secondary that degraded due to injuries — he offers more versatility and has a higher potential for creating turnovers than Maddox.

History

Gardner-Johnson reunites with cornerbacks Darius Slay and James Bradberry. The trio tortured opposing quarterbacks in 2022, forcing 12 total interceptions and recording 39 total pass breakups. Gardner-Johnson tied for the NFL’s most interceptions (six) in a five-game span during the middle of that season. He missed five games with a lacerated kidney and didn’t record another interception the rest of the year. He’ll also need to improve his tackling. His 14 missed tackles in 2022 tied for 17th most among safeties (minimum 262 snaps), according to Pro Football Focus.

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Outlook

The Eagles upgraded their secondary by adding Gardner-Johnson. But it’s still worth wondering how reliable the unit is right now. He has missed at least five games due to injury in each of the last three seasons. Slay, 33, missed five games in 2023 with a knee injury. Bradberry, who turns 31 in August, regressed last season and was frequently exploited in one-on-one situations. Brown, a 2023 third-round pick, is spending the offseason recovering from a torn ACL.

The Eagles still have young options under contract — Isaiah Rodgers, Kelee Ringo, Eli Ricks — who could use further development. But it would behoove Roseman to further equip the secondary in free agency or the upcoming draft, in which the Eagles hold the No. 22 overall pick.

(Photo: Rey Del Rio / Getty Images)





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