Big Pay For C.J.?
Free Agency Analytics Series: Gardner-Johnson Excellent, Not Elite
[Editor’s Note: This is the first of a four-part series examining some Eagles pending free agents from an analytics viewpoint. The author, Sam Finkel, is an InsideTheBirds.com staff contributor who focuses on analytics. Part 1 centers on Eagles safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson.]
C.J. Gardner-Johnson was a premium slot corner for most of his career.
However, his change of scenery from New Orleans to Philadelphia also came with a position change. In his first season at safety, Gardner-Johnson led the league in interceptions (6), while only playing 12 games.
Here’s an in-depth, analytics-based profile of Gardner-Johnson headed into free agency:
Strengths: Versatile defender who can play multiple positions…Lined up anywhere in defensive backfield, played competently…Will be 25 entering the ’23 season and entering his prime… 2022 season was small sample size of his potential…Possesses great instinct, triggers well and is a playmaker.. Was interception co-leader in 2022, possesses above-average ball skills…Good scheme fit for Eagles.
Weaknesses: Availability is a concern, has only recorded one full season – his rookie year…Has not missed more than five games, but injuries certainly concerning trend that needs to be discussed, especially given the price point… Takes aggressive angles and as a result had a relatively high missed tackle percentage (15.80% in regular season, ranked *59th among NFL safeties; 15.60% in postseason)…Allowed career-worst completion percentage in ’22 (78.57% in regular season, ranked *54th among NFL safeties; 80% in postseason) … Was beneficiary of one of the best defensive lines in NFL history…
*50% of maximum safety snap count threshold was implemented to not unfairly punish Gardner-Johnson for safeties with lower missed tackle percentages or lower completion percentages because of fewer opportunities.
In 2022, Gardner-Johnson posted his best season in various statistics. He had a career-year in interceptions (6) and tackles (56). This trend makes sense as Gardner-Johnson played predominantly in the slot prior to 2022. Despite allowing a career-high completion percentage in 2022 (78.57%). Gardner-Johnson only allowed a career-best 288 yards (8.73 yards per completion).
Gardner-Johnson allowed the most touchdowns of his career in 2022, but just four touchdowns. Gardner-Johnson allowed 24 yards per game in 2022, which is only worse than his rookie season, when he allowed 18.19 yards per game. Gardner-Johnson also allowed the highest QB rating when targeted in his career at 87.4.
GARDNER-JOHNSON VS. NFL SAFETIES
When compared to all NFL safeties, Gardner-Johnson’s stats are a mixed bag. He was the co-leader for interceptions despite playing fewer snaps than co-leaders Minkah Fitzpatrick and Justin Simmons. He was also eighth in yards per reception allowed (8.7). However, Gardner-Johnson ranked *43rd in tackles, *59th in missed tackle percentage, *51st in touchdowns allowed, and *54th in receiving percentage allowed. He was also *27th in QB rating allowed (87.4).
Gardner-Johnson’s statistics don’t necessarily indicate his value. Some of the value, relative to other safeties in the market, is based on projections of Gardner-Johsnon because pf the small sample size at safety. However, a majority of Gardner-Johnson’s value is his versatility. His 2022 snap distributions were 23.25% at strong safety, 55.04% at free safety and 21.34% in the slot.
There were only 11 other safeties who played more snaps in the slot in 2022. This versatility allows the Eagles to feel more comfortable playing creative defensive schemes.
*50% of maximum safety snap count threshold was implemented to not unfairly punish Gardner-Johnson for safeties with fewer opportunities.
GARDNER-JOHNSON VS. FREE AGENT SAFETIES
Nearly 70 safeties are set to test the market this offseason, and Gardner-Johnson will likely be one of the top available players if he and the Eagles don’t reach an agreement or the franchise tag isn’t applied. He was top-ten in interceptions and allowed yards per completion. However, statistics don’t illustrate the full picture of Garder-Johnson’s value. His statistics should hinder a market resetting payday as Gardner-Johnson has not proven he is worth more than the market. However, he won’t be cheap.
Kevin Byard (signed 2019): 5 years; $70.5 million; $14.10 million annual average value (AAV); 26 when signed
Marcus Williams (2021); 5 years; $70 million; $14 million AAV; 26 when signed
Jalen Thompson (2021); 3 years; $36 million; $12 million AAV; 24 when signed
John Johnson (2020); 3 years; $33.8 million; $11.25 million AAV; 26 when signed
Justin Reid (2021); 3 years; $31.5 million; $10.5 million AAV; 25 when signed
Amani Hooker (2021); 3 years; $30 million; $10 million AAV; 25 when signed
OTHER RELEVANT INFO
The franchise tag for safeties in 2023 is $14.46 million. All safeties with comparable statistics are below this price point. There are six comparable safeties provided because Gardner-Johnson does not perfectly fit the mold of any safety who has been signed to an extension in the past few years. However, there are components of each of these comparable safeties that Gardner-Johnson fits.
The Eagles should try to re-sign Gardner-Johnson to a long term extension. They should aim for a 3-to-5-year deal paying him at most $13.5 million AAV. Paying him any more is not justified by the statistics and market precedents.
Therefore, the franchise tag should not be considered in this situation, unless it is used similarly to Chris Godwin and the Buccaneers last year for the purpose of buying more negotiation time for a long term deal to be reached.
If the Eagles don’t retain Gardner-Johnson, they should look to the NFL draft, which is perceived to be top-heavy at safety and not too deep. Therefore, they should prioritize drafting a safety early, a path they don’t usually take.
The best safety is Brian Branch from Alabama – a very natural defender in coverage and playmaker. Branch provides the same versatility skillset as Gardner-Johnson, as he can play any position in the defensive backfield.
The next-best safety is Texas A&M’s Antonio Johnson, an excellent tackler who does a great job leveraging his 6-foot-3 frame. Johnson is also quick for his size and solid in coverage, particularly in his ability to track deep balls and disrupt passes.
If the Eagles choose free agency, the best alternative is Taylor Rapp, a former Rams safety, if the Rams let him walk. Rapp has identical measurements to Gardner-Johnson (6-0, 208) and played 26.88% strong safety, 54.81% free safety, and 17.57% slot, which is similar to Garnder-Johnson’s snap breakdown for the 2022 season. Rapp allowed similar yardage and is a better tackler than Gardner-Johnson. He is also projected at a lower AAV.
– Sam Finkel is a staff writer for InsideTheBirds.com who focuses on analytics.
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