Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner's got it all — including the cool to let the accolades slide gently off his back as the releases of this year's NFL Pro Bowl squads and other awards draw ever nearer.
"Just keeping the main thing the main thing, because all of it can go away on a certain day," Gardner told newyorkjets.com's John Pullano in a short but revealing look into the young man who's impacted the NFL's secondary position like a veteran in his prime. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't happy about all this stuff. I prayed for this.
"Coming into the league, the media was asking me what individual accolades I have for myself. I said, 'Defensive Rookie of the Year, Pro Bowl, All-Pro.' Aides were looking at me like 'That was kind of hard.' But I just felt like I was going to do whatever it took to at least get put in the conversation for it. That's all I really wanted, was to be in the conversation. Then I could go from there."
Gardner's very much in the most immediate conversation for the redesigned Pro Bowl. With less than a week before this year's Pro Bowl Games rosters will be revealed on NFL Network, Sauce is the AFC's leading vote-getter at cornerback.
The reason for that statistic are a few other metrics he's racked up through the first 13 games of his Jets career. His 16 pass defenses continue to lead the NFL. With four games to go, that's already more than any other rookie has accumulated in a season since 2019. He could join Marcus Peters and Ronald Darby in 2015 as the only 20-PD rookies in the last decade.
Gardner is the only NFL defender this season with at least two interceptions, 15 PDs and 50 tackles.
Then consider some of the receivers he's run into in his rookie season to help him clear these hurdles. Sauce chuckled as he went over the reasons he should be so honored as well as the surrealness that he's even in the hunt for these achievements as a rookie.
"The talent I've been going against, the NFL probably had it out for me or something like that," he said. "With the guys I've got to go against here, with the guys I'm going against like Justin Jefferson, Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, Amari Cooper, the list goes on. Before I even get started thinking about what I did against them, I think about who it is, the fact that I'm going against those type of guys. It's crazy. The way I'm holding my head up, going against those guys — that's big."
See the top photos from Thursday's practice leading up to the home game against Detroit.
Pro Bowl talk leads to Rookie of the Year chatter, which has also begun about the honor presented by The Associated Press before the Super Bowl.
Should Gardner be Defensive Rookie of the Year? "I don't even think it should be a question," he said. Several coaches, his own and others, agree.
"I know there are a lot of guys out there that are having fantastic years, but he does things that don't show up on tape or the statistics," Jets head coach Robert Saleh said. "The way he is blanketing receivers — and not just receivers, the best of the best. From Ja'Marr Chase to Tyreek Hill to Jaylen Waddle to Justin Jefferson to Stefon Diggs twice. That's elite company he has had to go against, and he's been doing just as good a job as anyone, not just rookies but players all around."
"He has the ability to challenge, play man, zone, scrap and claw, bring that dog mentality every Sunday," defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. "What people don't see is the human being, the way he holds people accountable. He gets these extra meetings, extra time with players. For me as a playcaller, he's a gift."
Even Detroit HC Dan Campbell got in on the acting, telling the Detroit Free Press that Gardner "came in believing in himself, and you could just tell, man, he believes he can compete and he' s not worried about anything. ... He's got the skillset, but he's got the right demeanor and the right attitude, and that shows up."
Gardner's next test will be Sunday at home against Campbell's Lions and the offense that's been electrifying on Jared Goff's passes to the likes of speedsters Amon-Ra St. Brown, DJ Chark, Josh Reynolds and others. Sauce isn't dwelling on the comments that have been made or the awards to come. But what Saleh said the young man from Detroit who's equal parts confident and humble.
"Of course, it boosts my confidence, hearing that from my head coach, a guy I admire, a guy I watch be a leader here. It definitely means a lot," Gardner said. "But like he always says, 60 percent more, it means I've got more in the tank. With ink comes expectation. Anytime I hear something like that, it just makes me go harder."
Fans can support Gardner and their other favorite players by voting for them to be named to the 2023 Pro Bowl Games roster, which features the NFL's top 88 stars. Those who cast their ballots at nyjets.com/probowl can also enter for a chance to win a trip to Super Bowl LVII courtesy of Castrol.