Gardner, the No. 10 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, followed his Pro Bowl and All-Pro rookie season with a second-straight selection to the all-star event and a first-team selection by the AP. This season, he started 16 games, registered 11 pass defenses, 3 tackles for loss and was Pro Football Focus's No. 3-rated cornerback (88.6) and received the top coverage grade at his position (90.8).
Heading into the season, some cast doubt on Gardner's ability to replicate his first-year success. Jets DC Jeff Ulbrich, however, never wavered.
"We've all talked about it, having seen the sophomore slump for a lot of these guys that get a lot of recognition and notoriety and awards and the whole thing," Ulbrich said during training camp. "Typically, when that happens, you see a letdown, you see a guy take a deep breath, kick his feet up, I've arrived. I haven't felt or seen or sensed that from him in the slightest. To him, I think, it just made him hungrier."
Ulbrich was right. Gardner, despite being thrown into the spotlight early, has never allowed the attention off the field to alter his play. In 583 coverage snaps this season, he allowed 31 completions for 251 yards (0.4 yards allowed per coverage snap). He became the only CB since 2006, when PFF started tracking data, to allow 251 or fewer yards, be targeted 51 or fewer times and play at least 1,000 defensive snaps.
"I love this game, I honor it so much," Gardner said. "I always have fun when I am out there on the field. I don't think about all that other stuff when I am out there. As I said, if I am out there and the ball comes my way, don't let the guy catch the ball. If I can pick it, pick it. If I can't pick it, then just don't let the guy catch the ball."
See images of the first-team All-Pro selections for the 2023 Jets season.
Last year, Gardner became the first rookie CB to be named a first team All-Pro since Ronnie Lott in 1981. This year, he did something not even the 49ers' Pro Football Hall of Famer could and became the first cornerback since the AFL/NFL merger to be named a first-team All-Pro in each of his first two seasons.
"Some of the great players in this league, people just avoid them," Ulbrich said. "Those players can get bored. I haven't felt that from Sauce, to tell you the truth. He likes to talk, he's always got great energy, he's always engaged. I haven't seen that. But it's something that could happen to a guy like himself when people avoid him at all costs."
For Williams, this is the first All-Pro selection of his career. He made it a goal before the season to be named to the Pro Bowl and an All-Pro. And despite being left off the Pro Bowl roster, he's grateful to have received the recognition from the AP's voters.
"It is an honor to be selected First Team All-Pro and be recognized with the best in the league," Williams said. "My focus this year was to improve my game in a way that others would take notice, and this shows I did. I have to thank my teammates and coaches for helping me accomplish this. The important thing for me now is to continue working to get better and help the Jets win."
Williams began his career in Jacksonville, a third round (No. 98) draft pick in 2019, before being cut after training camp in 2021 and claimed by the Jets off waivers before the season. He spent the last two seasons growing and playing alongside five-time Second Team All-Pro LB C.J. Mosley before taking a leap to All-Pro status in his third season with New York and fifth as a pro.
"I would challenge everyone here and elsewhere that there's not a better [line]backer in the NFL right now," Ulbrich said. "He is playing at an elite level in my opinion, and it's just so exciting to see for the young man, because he's a guy who just works so hard at it. It's so important to him."
This season, Williams registered 139 tackles – 13th-most in the NFL –, 15 tackles for loss – tied for 12th-most – and 10 passes defensed – second-most among linebackers. He played the eighth-most snaps in the league (1,092) and received a defense grade of (81.1) from PFF, the fifth-best among LBs that played at least 900 snaps.
Williams hit the national radar in October after earning AFC Defensive Player of the Month. In the Jets 31-21 win against the Broncos in Week 5 (Oct. 8), he did it all with 9 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 tackle for loss, 3 QB hits and a forced fumble that CB Bryce Hall returned for a game-sealing touchdown. He and Gardner continued their dominant play through the rest of the season leading the Jets defense to the No. 1 graded unit by PFF (90.1).
"I'm so proud of him," HC Robert Saleh said of Williams "You talk about the players that get thrown away and they try to find their way. He stuck to it, kept his head down, kept working and he's found his way and we're very fortunate that we have him.