NFL Legend Brian Dawkins Hypes Eagles Critical ‘Chess Piece’

Darius Slay, CJ Gardner-Johnson

Getty Darius Slay and CJ Gardner-Johnson are a big reason why the Eagles lead the NFL with 12 interceptions in 2022.

When the greatest safety in franchise history — arguably the best one to ever play in the NFL — starts taking notice of what you are doing on the football field, that’s a pretty big indicator of impending greatness. Philadelphia Eagles legend Brian Dawkins began charting C.J. Gardner-Johnson’s career in New Orleans. It was there that he first observed the youngster’s smooth play-making ability.

Dawkins recently spoke with Heavy prior to the Army-Navy game where he was serving as an ambassador for USAA. The Hall of Famer took a few minutes to share his scouting report on Gardner-Johnson and why he’s a critical piece of the Eagles’ defense.

“I recognized C.J. when he was with the Saints. To me, he was a dude that stood out even when he was playing in the position he was playing,” Dawkins said, referring to Gardner-Johnson’s time at cornerback. “One of the things that happened in New Orleans is he wasn’t blessed to be doing what he’s doing now. When he was in New Orleans, he was basically playing a whole lot of man-to-man coverage — you can’t be the player that you can be if you’re not given the ability to roam sometimes, the ability to be a chess piece.”

“So he’s using his instincts, his range, all of those things — and he can cover the slot, he can still do those things — but now you have a player who can affect the game in every statistical category, to be honest with you,” Dawkins said. “Obviously, he’s making picks, but he’s making key stops in the open field before he was injured. And here’s the other thing, it adds to the competition in the room so having that competition in the room, it really makes the other players better.”

Marcus Epps, Reed Blankenship Thriving

The other players in the room have stepped up their games in a major way thanks to intense competition. Fellow starter Marcus Epps is having a “career year,” according to Dawkins.

“Like, he’s making plays all over the place,” Dawkins said of Epps. “I’m not going to say it’s just because of C.J., I won’t say that, but I’m going to tell you that a lot of it is because of that talent. When you see him taking a lot of the chances that he’s taking, I’m pretty sure they are trading secrets.”

And the snaps the Eagles are getting out of undrafted rookie Reed Blankenship might be the icing on the cake, a drizzled buttercream frosting at the safety position that no one saw coming. He’s been forced into a starting role with Gardner-Johnson recovering from a lacerated kidney. Dawkins saw it first-hand from a suite box when Blankenship picked off Aaron Rodgers on November 27.

“That’s the thing about it. You have to have those individuals step up,” Dawkins said. “Next man up, that’s the cliche for everybody but it’s not reality that that person will step up and be able to perform well. When you have that young man, and I was in the box when we were honoring Trent [Cole] and Hugh [Douglas], so I came back for that game against Green Bay.”

Dawkins continued: “When I saw that young man, first of all, bait Aaron Rodgers and then jump in front of that dude and pick it as easily as he did. Again, that is not something a young player usually does so that tells me that behind the scenes he’s getting a whole lot of work, a whole lot of confidence poured into him by the coaching staff, that allows him to be himself 100% on the field.”

Gardner-Johnson Remains on IR, Not Activated

Gardner-Johnson is eligible to return from injured reserve this week and presumably play against the New Orleans Saints. However, the Eagles haven’t activated the 21-day practice window on him. According to The Inquirer’s Josh Tolentino, Gardner-Johnson was spotted in the locker room on Wednesday and got a workout in. He appeared to be in good spirits while chatting up his teammates.

Head coach Nick Sirianni didn’t supply much of an update on Gardner-Johnson when asked about him on Wednesday. It’s unclear what the team plans to at safety and nickel cornerback with Avonte Maddox out and Gardner-Johnson on the mend.

“C.J.’s feeling better. It’s good to see him around and everything,” Sirianni told reporters. “We’ll see where we are with that, but I know he’s feeling better. I know he’s on the road to recovery and it’ll be good to get him back when we’re able to get him back.

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