Lions Projected to Lose ‘Versatile Talent’

C.J. Gardner-Johnson

Getty Pro Football Network's Dallas Robinson projected Detroit Lions safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson to leave in free agency.

The Detroit Lions have already departed with one safety, veteran Tracy Walker, this offseason. Pro Football Network’s Dallas Robinson predicted the Lions to bid farewell to safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson in free agency as well.

On February 22, Robinson projected Gardner-Johnson to sign with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“Steelers slot corner Chandon Sullivan is on track for free agency, while Pittsburgh might try to find a better second safety to play opposite Minkah Fitzpatrick this offseason,” wrote Robinson.

“Gardner-Johnson could compete for both roles and shouldn’t cost much after missing most of the 2023 campaign with a pectoral injury. Another one-year contract in the $6-8 million range could make sense.”

Gardner-Johnson only appeared in three regular season games for the Lions in 2023. He suffered a pectoral muscle injury during Week 2 and didn’t return until the regular season finale.

But Gardner-Johnson still had an impact on the young Lions last season. SB Nation’s Pride of Detroit’s Erik Schlitt described the 26-year-old as “boisterous” and “a leader.”

But even with other accolades too, Schlitt wasn’t sure the Lions will have a starting spot for the veteran safety in 2024.

“While Gardner-Johnson is a positional versatile talent with Pro Bowl upside, the Lions don’t have a clear path to an open starting role at any of the positions he plays,” Schlitt wrote. “With the rise of Ifeatu Melifonwu and Kerby Joseph at safety and the emergence of Brian Branch in the slot, the Lions may prefer to keep their homegrown talent in high-contributing roles.”

C.J. Gardner-Johnson Suggested He Didn’t Like Rotational Role

The Lions definitely need more depth at cornerback and safety. But as Schlitt detailed, at the places where Gardner-Johnson offers positional versatility, the Lions have returning starters.

That means the Lions would need to outbid other suitors in free agency just to bring the 26-year-old back in a reserve role.

It’s also not clear Gardner-Johnson would sign up for such a gig. He seemed to imply upon his return from injury that he was displeased with not reassuming his starting role from Week 1.

“I’m cool with it, but I mean, how can I say this? I don’t want to sound like I’m selfish or an (expletive), but I ain’t get back early to be in a rotation,” he told reporters, via’s Kory Woods. “But I’m doing what I need to do as a team player to get my body going per se. But I’ve been ready for almost months.”

Projecting Gardner-Johnson’s Next Contract

The Athletic’s Colton Pouncy ranked Gardner-Johnson the team’s second-most valuable free agent entering this offseason. On a list of importance of re-signing, Schlitt rated Gardner-Johnson at No. 3.

Both offensive guards Graham Glasgow and Jonah Jackson were ahead of Gardner-Johnson on Schlitt’s list.

The Lions possess $48 million in cap space this offseason. So, they could, theoretically, re-sign all three of their top free agents this offseason.

Like Robinson did, Pro Football Focus projected Gardner-Johnson to play on another 1-year contract (worth $5.33 million) next season.

But re-signing the veteran safety along with Glasgow and Jackson is probably unlikely to happen. The Lions have a few players to potentially extend on new contracts, including quarterback Jared Goff and Amon-Ra St. Brown. Detroit could also go shopping for a cornerback or edge rusher upgrade in free agency.

There likely won’t be salary cap room in Detroit for Gardner-Johnson, Jackson, and Glasgow.

Gardner-Johnson could be an upgrade for the Lions, of sorts, since he didn’t play much last season. But with no obvious place for him to start, it is far from a sure-thing he will return to Detroit.

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