Sauce Gardner arrived in the Big Apple with a reputation of being a shutdown cornerback at the University of Cincinnati prior to being selected No. 4 overall in the 2022 NFL Draft by the New York Jets. Gardner is nearing the end of his first training camp in the NFL and quickly approaching the start of the regular season.
“It is going very well,” Gardner told CBSSports.com “I have been doing things that I have been coached to do. I am just making sure I am going out and giving it my all every day. It has been paying off.”
Measuring success can sometimes be difficult for a cornerback. The Detroit native was targeted on just 8.5% of coverage snaps for the Bearcats last season, according to TruMedia. He allowed zero completions of 20-plus yards in his final collegiate season and zero touchdowns during his entire collegiate career. Through three NFL preseason games, he had been targeted zero times on 23 coverage snaps. Yet, complacency never creeped into his mindset.
“You gotta think, even though they are probably not going at me, it is like 31 other teams watching. If I am on the backside of a play not doing what I am supposed to do, then the other 31 teams are going to see that and they are going to try and expose it. I just try to make sure I am doing what I am supposed to do on every single play.”
He is expecting — perhaps in an effort to bait the opposition — and eager to be tested more as a professional.
“Most definitely, [I am expecting to be targeted]. I am a rookie so, if I was a quarterback, I would for sure try [throwing on] a rookie. I would be going at them all game; that is how I think it is going to be with me and I am looking forward to it.”
Although declining to share a specific individual matchup that he has circled on his calendar, Gardner does have some team and individual expectations for his rookie season, which begins Sep. 11 on CBS against the Baltimore Ravens.
“I want to be a Pro Bowler, All-Pro. I want to win a Super Bowl. I just want to be a phenomenal teammate that leads by example and push the rest of my teammates to be the greatest that they can be.”
Despite finishing last season in the cellar of the AFC East with a 4-13 record, there is a sense of cautious optimism around a franchise that welcomed not only Gardner, but three other players handpicked inside the top 40 of the 2022 NFL Draft: Ohio State wide receiver Garrett Wilson, Florida State edge rusher Jermaine Johnson II and Iowa State running back Breece Hall.
“It helps a lot knowing that there are a lot of guys coming in and holding their own weight. It is not like there is a lot of pressure on me so that way we can just go on the field and do what we gotta do and get the win.”
Gardner, who is said to have earned his nickname ‘Sauce’ as a youth football player exploring various dipping sauces, has teamed up with a fitting restaurant chain. On Aug. 31 — Gardner’s birthday — Buffalo Wild Wings is introducing a brand new sauce to its depth chart: ‘Sauce Sauce.’
“Our partnership was meant to be. It is natural. I have my sauce, it is a smoky, sweet and spicy barbecue. It has its own personality, just like me. We go hand in hand. I just appreciate them giving me the opportunity to partner with them. I am looking forward to it. I think I am the only person with my own sauce. The fact that it is able to be called ‘Sauce Sauce,’ it really is my sauce. It is just a blessing, man.”
Opposing quarterbacks had the second-highest passer rating against the Jets secondary last season. Nearly 40% of opposing pass attempts went for a first down, according to TruMedia, which was also the second-worst mark behind Houston.
Four New York cornerbacks played more than 200 coverage snaps last season. None were picked earlier than the fifth round in the NFL Draft. General manager Joe Douglas went to work this offseason to add high-end talent to that unit by signing D.J. Reed in free agency and drafting Gardner. Those young cornerbacks empowered last season accumulated meaningful playing experience and now provide serviceable depth for a team looking to rise up the AFC East rankings.