From now until the 2022 NFL Draft takes place, we hope to scout and create profiles for as many prospects as possible, examining their strengths, weaknesses, and what they can bring to an NFL franchise. These players could be potential top 10 picks, all the way down to Day 3 selections and priority undrafted free agents. Today I am profiling Cincinnati CB Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner.
#1 Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner Draft Profile/CB Cincinnati 6026, 190 lbs.
NFL Combine Invite.
|Player||Ht/Wt||Hand Size||Arm Length||Wingspan|
|Ahmad Gardner||6026/190||9 5/8||33 1/2||79 3/8|
|40-Yard Dash||10-Yard Dash||Short Shuttle||3-Cone|
|Broad Jump||Vertical||Bench Press|
— Elite Size and Length Measurables for the Position
— Advanced footwork and quick feet in press coverage, routinely able to cut receivers off on their initial release, force them to work through contact to get downfield
— Uses length well in press coverage, able to consistently disrupt opposing receivers with powerful two hand jams at the line of scrimmage, force wide releases
— Does well in switching up his pre snap alignments to disguise his post snap assignment, speaks to his confidence
— Covers ground quickly and efficiently out of his breaks, making him just as effective in off man coverage and zone coverage as he is in press
— Great presence in zone coverage, does well to sink/occupy intermediate/downfield throwing windows and force dump offs the flats
— Great disguise/timing when blitzing from his boundary cornerback spot. Had as many sacks, 3 as he did picks in his senior year, showing great versatility. Effective both in blitzing on run and pass downs, willing to come downhill into the box.
— Extremely active and attentive in scramble drills. Rarely caught off guard and often is in position to capitalize on extended play throws made by opposing quarterbacks
— Long strides help him close ground effectively from out of phase, making him nearly impossible to target downfield
— Elite ball skills, does a great job of using his size, length, and leaping ability to attack footballs at their high point. Also does a good job of playing through the hands when out of phase or unable to locate the football.
— Does a great job of leveraging away from his help, allowing him to key the quarterback when in phase
— Has shown some positional versatility/worked as the slot cornerback at times in marquee matchups throughout his career/has quick enough feet to thrive in the slot despite lankier build
— Has solid hit power for a player of his stature when coming downhill and able to square up targets, not scared to throw his weight around
— Solid hip mobility, able to fluidly flip his hips and transition quickly from a square press stance into crossover run/allowing him to stay connected to receivers upfield shoulder and flatten their routes(big reason he has never allowed a touchdown)
— Has plenty of different techniques in his press coverage toolbox, is able to keep receivers off balance by mixing it up throughout a game
— Best game of the 2021 season came against Alabama and Jameson Williams, mitigating concerns regarding lack of competition
— Occasionally fails to square up ball carriers and run his feet on contact, leading to some ugly misses as a tackler. Likely could be cleaned up with more refinement of technique at the next level, effort and physicality are there.
— Primarily played on the boundary at the collegiate level, allowing him to play a shortened field and use sideline to his advantage. At the NFL level, where hashes are far more narrow, he’ll have to defend a more expansive route tree on a play by play basis
— Relies on physicality at times when rerouting receivers downfield, might need to refine technique to avoid penalties at the NFL level
— Lankier frame and longer stride length can make it difficult for him to navigate through traffic, making it difficult for him to guard mesh at times
— 1st team All-AAC 2019-2021
— AAC DPOY in 2021(second unanimous selection in league history)
— 99 tackles 5.5 TFLs 3.5 sacks 18 PDs 9 INTs 1 FF 3 TDs
— 2021: 40 tackles 5 TFLs 3 sacks 1 FF 3 INTs 4 PBUs 1 TD
— Did not allow a single touchdown in over 1,000 career coverage snaps
— Allowed just 13 catches for 117 yards during his 2021 season per PFF
— Allowed the third lowest passer rating in the FBS in 2020 per PFF, made more plays at the catch point than first downs he allowed
— Allowed a 39.4 passer rating when targeted as a freshman in 2019
— 325 of 390 total coverage snaps came in press coverage in 2021
— Was targeted on average just 2.7 times per game in 2021, allowing just 0.25 yards per coverage snap
— Allowed a 20.4 passer rating when targeted as a junior in 2021
I have traditionally been skeptical of the modern NFL’s infatuation with size and length at the cornerback position, placing higher value into traits such as hip mobility, change of direction skills, and ball skills. Enter Cincinnati’s Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, a refined technician in press coverage, equipped with fluid hips, agile feet, and elite ball skills despite his lanky frame, standing at 6’3” and tipping the scales around 200 pounds.
After dominating the AAC in 2019 as a freshman, Sauce was rarely targeted over his next two seasons, facing just 2.7 targets per game on average this past season, allowing just 0.25 yards per coverage snap in the process. Speaking further to his dominance, in over 1,000 career coverage snaps, Sauce did not allow a single touchdown reception, simultaneously collecting 9 interceptions and 18 pass breakups.
In his 2021 junior season, Sauce Gardner opted to align press coverage on 325 of his 390 coverage snaps, indicating his high level of comfort in press compared to most collegiate cornerbacks. Playing on the line of scrimmage as often has done throughout his three year collegiate career makes it even more impressive that he has never allowed a touchdown through the entirety of his time at Cincinnati. Unlike most players of his length and stature, Gardner has both quick feet and fluid hips, allowing him to stay square and make receivers fight through contact before getting into their routes.
At the snap, Sauce often works to match receivers laterally, staying square and allowing himself to stun receivers with quick jams from his disruptively long arms. Once receivers are eventually able to disengage and get into their route downfield, Sauce is able to flip his hips quickly and efficiently, where he can effectively carry his assignment downfield easily with his long strides and work to squeeze them toward the sideline with his lengthy frame.
While larger framed corners can be particularly disruptive in press coverage, at the NFL level, it is imperative that any corner be able to defend a full route tree from both press and off man coverage. Sauce is unique for his size in his ability to efficiently plant and drive coming out of his backpedal, transitioning quickly and covering plenty of ground with his first step.
Combine his movement skills with his patience and situational understanding of route recognition, and it becomes easier to understand why Sauce has separated himself from a majority of this year’s cornerback class. Below, in a late season matchup vs Eastern Carolina University from his freshman season, Sauce aligns in off coverage at the field cornerback spot, contrary to his traditional press man alignment in the boundary.
With the Pirates facing a 3rd and 6, clinging to a three point, 43-40 lead with 4:30 left on the game clock, Sauce does a great job of positioning himself at the sticks, and understanding that any route combination will likely seek to gain first down yardage. At the snap, Sauce takes three patient read steps in his pedal, keying the quarterbacks three stop drop and release before using a smooth T-step break, closing on the hitch quickly, and undercutting the route for a 62 yard pick six, giving Cincinnati a permanent lead. A large part of what makes Sauce such a complete prospect is that despite his impressive resume as a lockdown cornerback who can erase opposing receivers, he is also a natural playmaker at the position, and will undoubtedly help any defense create splash plays at the next level.
Most cornerbacks at the NFL level can play the ball when they are in phase. The best corners in the league however, are able to limit receivers consistently because they are just as good contesting the catch point when coming from out of phase. Cornerbacks will allow downfield separation from time to time, it is the nature of the position. That being said, their ability to remain calm, gauge the receivers eyes and hands, and play the pocket once the ball is a key element in elite cornerback play.
In regards to Sauce Gardner, his unique combination of long speed, length, ball skills, and situational awareness make him particularly effective when approaching receivers from a trailing position downfield. Below is a collection of three reps which I believe show his ability to quickly close cushion on receivers, stay patient when arriving at the catch point, and using his length and physicality to violently play through the hands and separate receivers from the football. As I had previously touched upon, even great cornerbacks will get beat off the line from time to time, however, the ones who understand that the rep doesn’t end until the receiver has secured the catch are the ones who will stand out at the next level.
While his football IQ stands out predominantly in his ability to key drops and jump routes, Sauce’s football IQ also helps him contribute to shutting down opposing teams rushing and quick passing games, where he has shown to be a willing tackler. Below, aligned in press man coverage against Alabama, Gardner quickly identifies the pick route concept, ditches his man, closes to the flat, and shoots low to stick Jameson Williams behind the line of scrimmage for a loss.
Similarly, in working from his boundary cornerback spot, Sauce became extremely effective as a blitzer off the boundary in his junior season, where he recorded three sacks and five TFLs. Mainly due to his great pre snap disguise and impeccable timing coming off the edge, Gardner was often able to insert into the box quickly and unaccounted for, allowing him to both shut down backside runs and be disruptive as a pass rusher. As you can see in the clips below, not only is Sauce effective as a blitzer, but when he is able to come downhill and square up his targets, he is an effective tackler with solid hit power for a player of his stature.
Far too many young defensive backs tend to panic when the quarterback scrambles and offense is able to work into extended play situations. That being said, extended play opportunities are one of the many areas where Sauce is able to showcase his football IQ, remaining calm and staying alert.
Below against USF, Sauce works a patient motor press, blanketing the hitch route before identifying that the quarterback has left the pocket, flipping his hips to carry his assignment vertically, throttling down to get chest to chest with the receiver, ultimately undercutting the route and attacking the ball at its highest point to secure an interception. Where many young cornerbacks panic in extended play situations and commit frustrating pass interference penalties, Sauce uses broken plays as opportunities for him to bait quarterbacks into ill timed throws where he can force turnovers and create short field opportunities for his offense.
One of the unique aspects of Sauce’s unique combination of length, quickness, and long speed, is that it allows him to routinely undercut shallow to intermediate, inside breaking routes. As he primarily played in a single high-centric, Cover 1 dominant scheme at Cincinnati, similar to what Pittsburgh runs at the NFL level, Sauce was routinely pressing with outside leverage, understanding that he had help from the post safety in the deep middle.
On the two reps below, the first from this past season against Notre Dame and the next from his sophomore campaign against SMU, Sauce shows great understanding of angles, allowing him to undercut routes from trail position. On the first rep against Notre Dame, Sauce matches the inside release, re-routing the receiver with a two hand jam before closing to the near hip, contacting the receiver, looking back to locate the football, and batting the pass down with his off hand for the pass breakup.
On the next rep against SMU, Sauce is aligned in the slot due to motion, allowing quick separation off the line before flipping his hips, closing at an angle to cut off the seam throw, and leaping to undercut the pass, nearly securing an interception. Where most cornerbacks would track directly for the back hip, Sauce’s football IQ and situational understanding allowed him to take a more direct angle, where he could close rapidly and undercut the seemingly wide open route. His ability to quickly close separation when beaten off the line makes him so tough to contend with in press coverage, leaving many quarterbacks to avoid targeting him all together.
In terms of major weaknesses in Gardner’s game, it is tough to identify any after watching six full games of tape. That being said, entering the NFL having predominantly played as the boundary cornerback at the college level where hashes are far more spread out means that he will have to defend a much larger and more nuanced route tree at the NFL level. Regardless, with his functional movement skills, size, technique, and football IQ, I don’t see this presenting much of an issue.
Otherwise, Gardner does have a bit of a tendency to be slightly too physical at times downfield, a trait which will certainly need refinement at the NFL level, where pass interference penalties are not only called more frequently, but are more costly in yardage as well. Below against Memphis during his sophomore campaign, Sauce is aligned in press man coverage, working in a Cover 1 scheme. At the line of scrimmage, Sauce does a good job of forcing an inside release and staying connected to the receivers upfield shoulder.
However, as he is shaken by an inside move at the top of the route, Gardner extends and grabs the receiver, impeding his progress and drawing a flag. While Gardner’s physicality is vital to his success and will continue to help him at the next level, he will need to refine his technique to avoid further penalties.
Finally, as I mentioned previously, Sauce is a willing and capable tackler when he is able to square up his target. That being said, there are reps, such as the one below against USF, where he misses tackles due to his inability to properly square up his target. After sinking into his deep ⅓ zone in a Cover 3 assignment, Gardner steps up to tackle the crosser, but fails to square up his feet and stops before contact, leading to an open field miss.
Entering the next level, Sauce needs to understand that he is at his best as a tackler when he is attacking his targets at full speed and taking swift and violent shots at the ball carrier, as with his frame, he wins through his momentum. Likewise, I tend to believe that as the “want to” is there, this is an issue which can and will fix itself at the next level with NFL coaching.
In his transition to the NFL level, Sauce will undoubtedly have a transition between playing on a collegiate boundary, where receivers are very limited in their route tree and the sideline is easier to use as an extra defender. That being said, few prospects at the cornerback position have entered the NFL with Sauce Gardner’s unique combination of size, length, refined technique, long speed, agility, football IQ, and experience in press coverage. As for the lack of competition concerns, in the six games I watched, I found his 2021 tape from the College Football Playoff matchup with Alabama’s Jameson Williams to be his best film.
Moving toward the next level, Sauce reminds me a bit of a young Antonio Cromartie, with his ability to suffocate receivers in press coverage, as well as the ability to sprinkle in off coverage to bait quarterbacks and make plays on the football. Similar to a young Cromartie, Gardner’s combination of length, recovery speed, and ball skills make him particularly difficult to target downfield. Likewise, both his high level coverage skills, his physicality defending the run game, and his high level of productivity as a blitzer, could allow teams to travel with opposing #1 WR’s and even play in the slot on occasion.
Regardless, I am higher on Sauce Gardner than I was on either of last year’s top 10 cornerbacks, Pat Surtain II and Jaycee Horn, both of whom I had a high first round grade on as well. Although unlikely, if Gardner were to fall to pick #20, I’d hope the Steelers would be ready to run the card to the podium. Not only would he provide unparalleled value at pick 20, he would step into Pittsburgh from Day 1 and serve as a high level #1 cornerback, who could both help eliminate opposing teams top receiver weapons as well as providing some much needed playmaking into the secondary alongside Minkah Fitzpatrick. Regardless of where he ends up, I fully anticipate that Sauce Gardner will prove to be a perennial All-Pro/Pro Bowl level cornerback at the NFL level, and I am excited to see him progress early in his career.
Projection: Early to Mid Day One
Depot Draft Grade: 9.4 – Pro Bowl Talent/Day One Starter
Games Watched: at South Florida(2021), at Notre Dame(2021), vs Alabama(2021), vs Memphis(2020), at SMU(2020), at ECU(2019)