Every NFL draft, no matter what the class shapes up to be before the weekend, there are always a handful of prospects that slide further down the selection list than you think their talent warrants.
In 2019, for many people, the big name that slid was safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.
Coming out of Florida, Gardner-Johnson was seen as a hybrid secondary player. Over the course of three seasons, he saw snaps at free safety, strong safety and slot cornerback. He was everywhere, but didn't have a solidified "home." In his final season, Gardner-Johnson had more slot responsibilities than anything else and really seemed to thrive in this area. Not only did that give him a calling card going into the draft, but also should have given people a visual on how he could be a valuable asset as a mismatch, neutralizing kind of player against tight ends and other creative slot studs at the next level.
Fast forward the clock, and that's exactly what Gardner-Johnson was in his rookie season.
So, what gives? With offenses clearly using the slot position to be X-factors in their game plans, why in the world did a 5-foot-11, 210-pound, experienced, versatile coverage player who tested in the 81st percentile in the 40-yard dash drop all the way to No. 105 where the New Orleans Saints swiped him up?
Pre-draft there were plenty of people who were projecting Gardner-Johnson to be a top-50 selection. When he didn't go in the first or second round, it was a little surprising. But for him to not even go in the third round? It was downright shocking.
It was shocking to Gardner-Johnson too.
“Lot of emotion because it’s just like what’s happening?” he told Pat Welter of Spectrum News. “We don’t know until they tell you everybody says different things, people think different things and I just got on my knees and started praying like if everything fails just give me one shot.”
Gardner-Johnson got his shot, and he certainly made the most of it. But why exactly did that shot come all the way on Day 3?
After the draft, reports started to creep out that teams had character concerns. These off-field concerns weren't based on him getting in trouble, but rather his attitude — the perception of his attitude, to be exact. Gardner-Johnson is very, very confident player. It’s something that I would argue is required to play defensive back at the NFL level. But having that confidence is a fine line to walk during the draft process because some teams can view confidence as arrogance.
Confidence is coveted. Confidence is what pushes people. There must be a healthy amount of confidence and pride in each professional football player to develop. But arrogance is viewed as a roadblock. It's seen as potential defiance. It's viewed as someone who could put themselves before the team. It's looked at as something that might diminish effort when pushed, instead of the other way around.
In 2017, Gardner-Johnson's tape showed a lot of inconsistencies. It showed not only a lack of willingness to be physical when tackling but also a lack of focus when it came to technique, even when he decided to tackle. Talent was never a question with this former 4-star player, and yet there were plays where the talent didn't show up as much as it could have. Scouts and team builders clearly went to Gardner-Johnson's attitude and approach as the reasons.
What teams did was fail to truly recognize the value in how improved Gardner-Johnson was in this and other areas in 2018. In his junior season, Gardner-Johnson showed not only reliability but the X-factor kind of potential in man coverage and when defending short zone. Both of these roles required him to be physical and disciplined, and he was.
With improved play came even more confidence. When the draft process rolled around, I am sure there were many teams that thought Gardner-Johnson's confidence came off as arrogance. Those teams are now watching a player they had a chance to draft be one of the best young difference makers in the league.
“I made it, but I didn’t make it,” Gardner-Johnson said after he was drafted. “Now I’m feeling to make every team that passed on me feel it.”
It takes a certain kind of coach to deal with strong personalities. Gardner-Johnson certainly carries a big personality, and with it comes the responsibility to find that personality's place on the team like a piece of a puzzle. Some coaches view "dealing" — and I use quotations there on purpose — with players like Gardner-Johnson as unnecessary work.
Meanwhile coaches like Sean Payton in New Orleans sometimes get a first-team All-Rookie player in the fourth round, all because they're not afraid of an alpha.
Payton's draft motto can be summed up as such: draft good players. That's just what the Saints do. They aren't afraid of the big personalities and they shouldn't be. They are confident enough in who they are as a coaching staff and what their process to success is to be able to work with players who have some of the biggest personalities in the business. In return, they either get that player's respect (and their talent) or they show them the door.
As you would expect, Payton isn't the NFL coach who has carried this kind of viewpoint on players who bring both big talent and big personality to a team. Long-time coach Wade Phillips got his first defensive coordinator job in 1981. He has worked with some of the best players and some of the biggest personalities throughout his three decades around the league. After all those years, something Phillips says he's learned is to not shy away from big talent, just because it might come with a big personality.
"I want them to have personalities," he said. "A lot of them are really good because of their personalities, they're confident in themselves."
Not every coach is cut out to handle big personalities. But not every coach is cut out to take a team to football's mountain top either. Payton has proven that he is -- in both ways. That's why, for coaches like him, one team's slide is another team's steal.
In this case, it was Gardner-Johnson.