After a standout rookie season, Jets star CB Sauce Gardner has already earned the respect of his peers by being named the No. 23 player in the 2023 edition of the NFL Top 100, which is voted on by the players.
The No. 4 overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft, Gardner started all 17 games last season and led the NFL with 20 passes defended. He added 2 interceptions, 3 tackles for loss and became the first rookie cornerback named a first-team All-Pro since Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott in 1981. In addition, Gardner was named Defensive Rookie of the Year and was selected to the Pro Bowl.
"Just the level in which he played, and the consistency that he's played with as a rookie has been, I don't know if I've ever seen it before," defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. "And to think that he hasn't even scratched the surface of where he can go, which is cool for his future."
Gardner played a key role in the Jets' transformation into a top 5 defense. The defense went from dead-last in scoring and total defense in the 2021 season to fourth in each statistical category. The Jets are the first team in the Super Bowl era to rank in the top 10 in both categories after a last-place finishes the season before.
Since 2000, 70 rookie CBs have started at least 12 games, and of those only Gardner and Dallas' Terence Newman in 2003 have been a part of top 5 defenses.
"He's smart, he's a problem solver," senior defensive assistant and cornerbacks coach Tony Oden said. "Who are guys who can problem solve on the field and recognize things quickly before they get to the sideline?"
Two of Gardner's signature moments came in wins against division rivals Buffalo and Miami. In the Jets' 20-17 win against the Bills in Week 9, Gardner intercepted Pro Bowl QB Josh Allen and returned it to the Buffalo 35-yard line to set up a go-ahead touchdown.
In a 40-17 victory against the Dolphins in Week 5, Gardner came on a blitz and forced QB Teddy Bridgewater into an intentional grounding penalty that resulted in a safety on Miami's first offensive snap.
Gardner was the top-rated defensive back in the league by Pro Football Focus and the 14th-highest-graded defender (88.5). He had 4 games with a rating of 80-plus including a season-high 90.2 against the Broncos in Week 7.
"You put so much work in these young men to validate what you see, and knock on wood, he's only going to get better," HC Robert Saleh said. "He's only scratching the surface."