The superlatives as they apply to Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner are close to wearing out all the synonyms Roget's Thesaurus has to offer. Exactly how good is Sauce Gardner?
If Gardner, the Jets' top pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, secures his second consecutive first-team All-Pro honor he will have accomplished in his first two seasons something the best CBs in league history did not. That list includes Darrelle Revis, Champ Bailey, Deion Sanders, Richard Sherman and Rod Woodson ... or any others of note.
He's also in the competition to appear in his second Pro Bowl Games, with events to be held at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, FL, on Feb. 4.
"I appreciate everybody who voted for me in the Pro Bowl, hopefully I can make that happen again," Gardner told Eric Allen of newyorkjets.com. "Two-time Pro Bowler, two-time All-Pro sounds nice. We'll see what happens."
What will happen first is Thursday night's visit to Cleveland to play the Browns (10-5) and former teammates QB Joe Flacco and WR Elijah Moore, not to mention elite WR Amari Cooper.
"The challenge for him [Gardner] is going to be stay locked in and he is," head coach Robert Saleh said during his Tuesday press conference. "I want to make sure I say this because the way he approaches practice and games and meetings, he's very deliberate, he's very locked in and he's very focused. And I compare it to Sherm when I coached Richard Sherman, you can get bored out there when teams are just deliberately trying to avoid you. He's locked down that left side of the field and he's earned that right."
While Gardner usually roosts on the left side of the defense, with Reed on the right side (Cooper's favored spot), Saleh said that like the Washington game when Gardner stuck with the Commanders' Terry McLaurin the Jets would put their best against the Browns' best at times.
"We have done that," Saleh said. "I think we did that last week some with McLaurin, so there are going to be opportunities. But as I said, it's not a stubbornness, it's a whole philosophy and a whole global thinking with regards to all 11. But when we can, we've shown that we will."
Flacco is Cleveland's fourth starting QB this season and he's been hot (1,307 yards, 10 TDs) ... and cold (7 INTs).
"He's a confident guy, always smiling," Gardener said of Flacco. "I'm looking forward to it. He's a pretty good quarterback, you can tell by the tape that he believes and trusts in his guys."
They battled in practice last season when Flacco was with the Green & White, a spell that Gardner said "was pretty cool, fun, he made some plays on me and I made some on him. Some picks. I'm looking forward to it. He's a great guy."
The Jets' defense is No. 3 overall and No. 2 in net passing yards and has not allowed a 300-yard passer in its 33 past games. According to Pro Football Focus, Gardner (last season's Defensive Rookie of the Year) is the No. 2 graded corner (min. 80% of snaps) and his running mate D.J. Reed is No. 9. Gardner was not targeted against Miami two weeks ago and saw limited challenges last week against Washington, allowing a single reception for 7 yards.
Gardner is tops in the NFL with a 90.2 coverage grade and has yielded a paltry 243 yards through 15 games. He and Reed are preparing for the challenge of facing Flacco and Cooper, who last week had 11 receptions for 265 yards and 2 touchdowns.
"He's top 5 [in the league], easily," Gardner said. "Probably even lower than that. A technician for sure."
In addition to quickly making an indelible mark on the football field, Gardner has quickly parlayed his New York-area notoriety into a cache of endorsements that includes Buffalo Wild Wings, Bose, ZipRecruiter and EA Madden NFL. He's chatty, personable and his play speaks volumes on the field.
"Whether the ball comes or not, I'm still able to make a play," Gardner said. "I always say I can't get bored or tired of the ball not coming my way. I'm always trying to perfect my craft."
Gardner, really the entire defense, has benefitted from playing together for the past two seasons, especially the Jets' elite defensive backfield that also includes Reed and nickel Michael Carter.
"We're always talking," Gardner said. "These two years together we've gotten really comfortable, playing together and having fun."
With two games left in the 2023 season, the Jets will head into the offseason with another opportunity to augment what is already a young and talented roster in April's draft. On Monday, Saleh was effusive in his praise of the team's recent draft picks, particularly on offense. For his part, Gardner knows that the members of the team's 2022 draft class -- a group that includes him, WR Garrett Wilson, RB Breece Hall, DL Jermaine Johnson, TE Jeremy Ruckert, OL Max Mitchell and DL Micheal Clemons -- have held up their end of the bargain.
"Those are my guys," Gardner said. "Saleh told us early last year that we're going to be a huge part of the team. We took that challenge and put it on our shoulders."