On Wednesday, NFL Media’s Daniel Jeremiah named Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner as the top rookie in the 2022 class after four weeks.
Although Gardner has been praised for how quickly he has performed at the NFL level, he’s about to receive his biggest test of the season Sunday.
Not only will Gardner and D.J. Reed have to deal with Dolphins receiver Tyreek Hill, but the team also has Jaylen Waddle and tight end Mike Gesicki.
“It’s a big challenge,” Gardner said. “It’s a huge opportunity for the secondary to why we belong and why we are one of the best in the NFL.
“I’m looking forward to it and I know the rest of my guys are.”
After being selected No. 4 overall in last April’s draft, Gardner has impressed the Jets staff and players.
During his first four games, Gardner has lined up opposite players like Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase, Browns receiver Amari Cooper, Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson and Ravens tight end Mark Andrews. But playing against the speed of the Dolphins’ receivers comes with different challenges.
Hill and Waddle have been the best receiver tandem in the league during the first quarter of the season. Hill leads the NFL in receiving yards with 477 yards, along with 31 catches and two touchdowns. Waddle is sixth in receiving yards as he has 21 receptions for 381 yards and three touchdowns while averaging 18.1 yards per catch.
In the 24-20 victory over the Steelers last week, Gardner was targeted seven times but only allowed two catches for nine yards and allowed a passer rating of 39.6, according to Pro Football Focus. Gardner also has an overall grade of 71.1 as he’s allowed nine catches on 19 targets for 101 yards and a touchdown.
Reed, who plays on the opposite side of Gardner, and who was signed in free agency, has a 75.4 PFF grade. By those metrics, Gardner and Reed are two of the best cornerbacks in the league.
As a team, the Jets recorded four interceptions against the Steelers, three against rookie Kenny Pickett and one against Mitch Trubisky. Even early in his career, Gardner already looks like a top cornerback as he is even conducting himself like one off the field as well.
After the game ended against the Steelers, Gardner started watching film of both Hill and Waddle to understand each player’s tendencies.
“Some of my individual goals line up with me going up against guys that are great like Tyreek Hill and the other receivers that I’ve went against,” Gardner said.
“We talked a lot about it and we were talking about it right after the Pittsburgh game. We always talk about the quarterbacks we are going up against and the receiver and how they might try to target us.
“I feel like that’s why we’ve been able to do so well so far.”
The Dolphins will be shorthanded this weekend as they will be without starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. In Miami’s 27-15 loss to the Bengals last week, Tagovailoa suffered a concussion and was ruled out this week by Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel on Monday.
Veteran backup Teddy Bridgewater will start in place of Tagovailoa. Bridgwater completed 14 of 23 passes for 193 yards, a touchdown, and an interception in relief.
Because Bridgewater will be under center, the Dolphins could rely more on their rushing attack instead of throwing the ball deep, which has what the team has done a lot this season.
“The challenge for him, again, he’s doing a really nice job making sure everything is contested,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said about Gardner.
“He’s tackling really well. He’s absorbing a lot of information. He’s learning on the fly. He’s in the film room, him, D.J. [Reed], Bryce Hall, [Brandin] Echols, they’re all doing a really good job meeting together, Michael Carter II.
“They’re doing a great job meeting together and getting with the safeties to make sure we’re all seeing things the same way. His sky’s the limit. He’s going to be a special player. Knock on wood. So, as the season goes and he gets more reps, he’s only going to get better.”
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