The Philadelphia Eagles face a unique challenge heading into their season opener against the Detroit Lions. They’ll be trying to get newly acquired safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson into the starting lineup with just 11 days to work on getting him up to speed with the defensive scheme. Gardner-Johnson was on the practice field in Philadelphia on Wednesday, and the season opener is September 11, a week from Sunday.
That 11 day stretch includes only five days of practice, according to Reuben Frank of NBC Sports Philadelphia, who also pointed out that Gardner-Johnson would be the first Eagle to start the season opener after being acquired this late in the preseason in some 34 years, dating back to offensive tackle Ron Heller in 1988.
Eagles Say the Plan is to Get Gardner-Johnson Ready On Time
Head coach Nick Sirianni is projecting confidence.
“We pay [defensive coordinator] Coach [Jonathan] Gannon and [defensive passing game coordinator/defensive backs coach] Coach [Dennard] Wilson a lot of money to do their jobs, and C.J. [Gardner-Johnson] is a smart guy,” Sirianni said in his press conference on September 1. “So, we’ll get him ramped up and get him ready to go.”
It’s worth noting that Sirianni and the Eagles staff would be likely to put up a smokescreen and a veil of confidence even if they knew Gardner-Johnson wouldn’t be able to start that quickly, simply to keep the Lions off balance in their game-planning. In his press conference two days earlier, Sirianni was transparently coy about which position they planned to use their new defensive back in, even as most analysts projected him to be their starting safety, and the team listed him on the roster as a safety.
“That’s our job as coaches, to have a plan, and we do,” Sirianni said. “I think at this point right now, it doesn’t benefit us to talk about how we’re playing him, where we’re playing him, because we’re in game plan week right now.”
Assuming the Eagles use him at safety, it’ll be somewhat of a transition, as the vast majority of his NFL snaps have come at cornerback.
That said, Gardner-Johnson seems confident about getting up to speed in time to contribute right away. “I’m a ballplayer, you know, it’s just football,” the 24-year-old said during his August 31 press conference. “I’ve been playing it since I was like six years old.”
Gardner-Johnson said he’ll be putting in some extra work to prepare, and cited teammates and coaches as helping him in that regard. “Coaches [have] been A1, players [have] been A1, they’ve been helpful. Like first day of practice, I was out there flying around with the guys.”
Gardner-Johnson Has Experience at Safety
While Gardner-Johnson has primarily lined up as a corner in the NFL, the University of Florida listed him as a defensive back and his college bio notes that he played entirely at safety for the Gators in 2017.
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman noted that the front office considered Gardner-Johnson a safety for the 2019 NFL Draft. “We evaluated him as a safety in college, too, so this isn’t like it’s totally fresh for him,” Roseman said during a press conference on August 30. “This is something that you see more and more in this league. You see it with the two guys playing in Buffalo, obviously; you saw it when we had Malcolm [Jenkins] here in Philly.”
There’s also a lot of positional overlap in the Eagles defensive scheme between a safety and a slot cornerback, which was Gardner-Johnson’s role in New Orleans.
“Our coaches work really hard at cross-training those guys,” head coach Nick Sirianni said in his August 30 press conference. “There are some different things that we’re able to do where they are interchangeable, obviously, of when you ask them to play the deep half and when you ask them to play in the box and when you ask them to play the deep third. So, there are some interchangeable parts and some looks that we show that for us as a defense that make us multiple.”
While that’s part of defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon’s scheme primarily to make the Eagles defense tougher for opponents to figure out, it may also make some of the transition a little bit more natural for a player like Gardner-Johnson.
Either way, the old position seems to be coming back to the new Eagle quickly.
“Everything felt natural, everything felt like I was back in high school or middle school again, you know just out there playing like a kid, having fun,” Gardner-Johnson said.