Ahmad Gardner was a wiry, 160-pound high school recruit that was overlooked by the top Big Ten schools in the recruiting process but developed into one of the best cornerbacks in college football and a top NFL prospect. Since joining the Bearcats, Gardner has filled out his frame and became a standout starter as a true freshman. Gardner is a long and athletic corner that can function in a variety of coverage techniques but his best work comes in zone and press coverage. He is a feisty competitor with excellent coverage instincts and he has above average ball skills. When it comes to areas of concern at the next level, there can be some drag-down tendencies as a tackler—his high hips elongate his ability to trigger and drive downhill and he needs to trust his athleticism more and not be so grabby in coverage. Gardner has the makeup of an NFL starter that could claim that role in year two if not year one. He has every necessary trait to develop into an above average starter for an NFL defense and his high-level play across three seasons in college sets him up well for success at the next level.
Ideal Role: Starting Outside Corner
Scheme Fit: Zone Coverage
Written by Joe Marino
Games watched: Memphis (2020), UCF (2020), Houston (2020), UCF (2021), Notre Dame (2021), Indiana (2021),
Best Game Studied: SMU (2020)
Worst Game Studied: Houston (202)
Man Coverage Skills: While he projects better to a zone-heavy scheme, Gardner has proven to be a reliable man-coverage corner where his length and speed are notable assets. With that said, he has a tendency to be extremely grabby and I want to see him trust his athletic confidence more in man coverage. He can be a touch greedy with cushion and playing from the trail to bait throws and create chances to make plays on the football but overall, he can hold his own in man but he has to be careful to not draw penalties.
Zone Coverage Skills: Gardner thrives in zone coverage and playing from a half-turn where he can read the backfield and work into throwing lanes. He has a strong feel for layering coverage, squeezing routes, and working into throwing windows. His length is a major asset in zone, where he can truly test the ball placement of the opposing quarterback by staying leveraged and restricting the catch radius of the receiver.
Ball Skills: Gardner has had consistent and steady ball production throughout his career at Cincinnati. He showcases the ability to drive forward on the ball and he’s also comfortable with his back to the line of scrimmage. His length and quickness show up in a big way when he has chances to make a play on the ball and he loves to bait throws.
Tackling: My 2020 exposures to Gardner revealed more favorable notes on his tackling when compared to 2021. I really liked his temperament and aggressiveness to trigger and make stops but in 2020 he had more drag-down tendencies. He’s clearly a capable tackler but there are some consistency issues.
Versatility: Gardner profiles best as an outside corner in a zone-heavy defense but is experienced in a variety of coverage techniques. He brings notable upside in tight press coverage where he does a great job of creating jams at the line of scrimmage and disrupting routes. He’s a sound run defender. I don’t think he has much appeal as a traditional slot option but he can function as a slot safety in 3-3-5 looks.
Competitive Toughness: Gardner is a fiery competitor on the football field and it’s easy to love his aggressiveness in coverage. He’s mostly a secure run defender that will take on blocks and play physically. He is aggressive playing in the face of receivers in press coverage to get hands on and compete to create jams.
Functional Athleticism: Gardner has excellent speed and you can see that when he turns and runs and opens his stride. For a taller corner, his transitions are fairly clean and there isn’t notable stiffness. With that said, his click and close quickness is sufficient but it isn’t top tier.
Football IQ: Gardner does well to perform his 1/11th in a disciplined Cincinnati defense. He was an overlooked high school recruit but that didn’t stop him from earning a starting role for a good football team as a true freshman. While you won’t find much in the way of mental mistakes studying his film, he needs to eliminate his grabby tendencies in coverage. His penalties dipped in 2021 which is an encouraging sign.
Run Defending: Gardner is a sound run defender that is willing to trigger and fit the run while also taking on blocks to spill runs inside and maintain outside leverage. With that said, he’ll need to reduce drag-down tackle attempts to find more consistency when finishing.
Length: Gardner features terrific length and he knows how to use it to his advantage. It mostly shows up at the catch point with his ability to restrict the catch radius of his opponent but it’s also a major asset at the line of scrimmage in press coverage. Overall, it increases his margin for error in coverage and as a tackler.
Prospect Comparison: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (2008 NFL Draft, Arizona Cardinals)
TDN Consensus: To Be Determined
Joe Marino: 86.00/100 (First Round Value)