The truth behind the strange set of events surrounding C.J. Gardner-Johnson, the Eagles and his one-year deal with the Detroit Lions may never fully be detailed. It appears as if his sports agency severely misread the safety market, costing their client extra money and a multi-year commitment in free agency. Or maybe he really, really wanted to transfer to the NFC North.
Bottom line, Gardner-Johnson is gone and the Philadelphia Eagles are looking for a replacement. With James Bradberry and Darius Slay coming back, they stand to have one of the best cornerback tandems in the NFL. Lock down. Lights out. Filling in around them might not be as hard as everyone thinks.
Philly Sports Network’s Bryan Cameron listed some great options out there on the open market. All of these players, plus familiar face Jalen Mills, should be in play to sit atop the depth chart and replace Gardner-Johnson:
The NFL draft will provide another opportunity for the team to grab an impact safety. They would be in a prime position to take the best one on the board, Alabama’s Brian Branch, at pick No. 10 if they wanted. Then again, the Eagles could choose to roll with what they have on the roster.
Reed Blankenship is destined for one of those spots after starting four games last season. He opened up a lot of eyes, including those of Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins who was in attendance on November 27 when Blankenship picked off Aaron Rodgers in Philly.
“When I saw that young man, first of all, bait Aaron Rodgers and then jump in front of that dude and pick it as easily as he did,” Dawkins told Mike Greger. “Again, that is not something a young player usually does so that tells me that behind the scenes he’s getting a whole lot of work, a whole lot of confidence poured into him by the coaching staff, that allows him to be himself 100% on the field.”
In-House Options to Replace Gardner-Johnson
The 23-year-old cornerback saw a lot of snaps at safety during training camp in 2022. He was getting first-team reps there alongside Anthony Harris early in the summer, then worked in at nickel cornerback later in the year when Avonte Maddox went down. He intercepted Aaron Rodgers in Week 12 — a game-changing turnover, off a Darius Slay tip, that set up a touchdown — and finished with three total tackles on 33 defensive snaps.
The decision to sign the former second-round pick in free agency was mildly surprising when it happened. Now it makes a whole lot more sense following Gardner-Johnson’s exit. Williams doesn’t have any experience taking snaps at safety, but the Eagles don’t mind experimenting and tinkering in the secondary. He has great size (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) to possibly make the switch, a la Rod Woodson, plus tremendous route recognition and tackling skills.
The most logical move on the chess board would be sliding Maddox over to safety. He excelled at the position during his rookie year and filled in there last season when injuries decimated the secondary. You could argue that 2018 was Maddox’s best season: 2 interceptions, 4 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble. Problem is, you would be robbing Peter to pay Paul by moving one of the best nickel corners to another spot on the field.
The 27-year-old has carved out a niche as a special-teams ace during his two seasons in midnight green. He always seems to be around the ball, whether it’s breaking up passes near the goal line or flying into the backfield to snuff out a quarterback sneak. He was making plays all over the field last preseason, especially against the Cleveland Browns. The Eagles should let him compete for the job.
Simply put, this is Wallace’s last chance to prove his worth to the Eagles. The former fourth-round pick out of Clemson garnered some hype coming out of college — people were salivating about his close relationship with Brian Dawkins — but it’s been a struggle for the 5-foot-11, 205-pounder to put it all together. His biggest claim to fame through his first three NFL seasons has been a field goal block. And his role in a scrum from the NFC Championship Game.
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