The Jets' braintrust has talked about Ahmad 'Sauce' Gardner since the day in late April when they made him the team's top draft pick. The optimistic chatter continued through May and grew louder during OTAs and minicamp in June.
Now, it all gets real with the opening of training camp this week at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center. And among the position groups under the purview of defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, you can hear the excitement in his voice when he talks about Gardner and the Green & White's the deep cohort at cornerback.
"It's critical," Ulbrich said, referring to the group. "Things are going to happen, people are going to hurt, get nicked. You have to have the ability to absorb injury in this league and if you can't, you can't have sustained success. The fact that we do have depth, exciting guys with a lot of skill sets, allows us to adapt. It's going to give us the ability to adapt to offenses regarding matchups, regarding techniques and calls while relying on our superpowers."
And although Gardner has yet to unveil the "S" (S for Superman) on his Jets jersey, landing the No. 1 (for which he paid teammate D.J. Reed $50,000) in Gotham green, stealth black and spotlight white should give some indication of his confidence level and the growing feeling among the Jets' coaching staff that they do indeed have a special player on their hands.
"He's the rare guy, he refuses to repeat errors," Ulbrich said. "He's constantly growing. If something happens, he gets beat or just isn't closer enough to a receiver, he sprints over to the sideline to Tony Oden [senior defensive assistant/cornerbacks coach] or myself or Coach Saleh and he's like 'what just happened there?'
"He's an insane student of the game. He has a passion and love for it, and a brain to absorb it all. To see him in the spring, probably the thing that most surprised me was we knew he was an athlete and an athletic talent. We heard about his mental makeup. But still, just to see it, and to see it consistently is impressive. He's the first on field and last to leave. Just to see a guy so obsessed with it, he's unique in that way.
"A lot of rookies sit back and take their lumps and steadily grow. But I don't think he's down for that life. He doesn't want that. He wants it now— he wants to be great today. The idea of just being a player in this league, just a starter is the farthest from his brain. That's a huge part of him. He's got the makeup to do it. He wants to be the best in the game."
By now, Gardner's numbers from his days playing for the Cincinnati Bearcats have been chewed over and analyzed. But still, in three seasons at Cincinnati, he had 9 INTs and didn't allow a TD. In 2021, Gardner allowed only 13 catches for 117 yards according to PFF College while registering 3 INTS, 3 sacks and 4 PDs. While Gardner thrives in press-man situations, he is a complete cornerback.
"Regarding his time being down in press position, he lived and thrived in that world," Ulbrich said. "We're going to allow him to do that as often as we can. It's going to be an adjustment; we're going to mix in enough stuff for him so he'll still be able to thrive and do his things. He's still going to have opportunities to press people. That's his superpower, and to not allow him to do that would be a huge mistake."
Though no one, Ulbrich among them, has yet to anoint Gardner a sure-fire starter for the Week 1 game against visiting Baltimore, most observers assume Gardner will team with Reed, signed in free agency from Seattle, as the starters on the outside with Michael Carter II at nickel. That is not, by any means, to underrate the skill, experience and potential of players like Brandin Echols, Bryce Hall and Javelin Guidry (Jason Pinnock, who was drafted last year as a corner out of Pitt, has moved over to the safeties' room).
"Reed brings an edge, a dog mentality and provides an amazing example for young players," Ulbrich said. "Where he came from and what he's overcome. He wasn't drafted high [Round 5 in 2018] but found a way to become a top-tier corner. He provides so much for us.
"With Echols, I anticipate him making a big jump this year. Maybe going into last season, we didn't think we could count so much on a sixth-round pick out of Kentucky, but he became a better player for us. With most rookies, they're just trying to stay alive and keep their heads up out of the water and often have the feeling of being drowned. The season ends and they have a chance to breathe and that's where the growth occurs. Things start to make sense. I felt that from him.
"Bryce is also going to make a big jump — he didn't play a lot his rookie year because of injury. And Michael Carter played a lot of nickel and I think he's going to be a much better player."
See the Jets' 90-man roster leading up to training camp.