It’s a good thing for Sauce Gardner that Buck Showalter is managing from the Mets’ dugout instead of coaching on the Jets’ sideline.
In making his case for why “the biggest jump in professional sports” is going from hitting in the minor leagues to facing MLB pitchers, Showalter recently said that college football stars become NFL “All-Pros the first year.” So, you can imagine how high Showalter’s expectations would be for the rookie Gardner, who was drafted No. 4 overall by the Jets after not allowing a touchdown catch in three seasons at Cincinnati.
What are the more realistic expectations for Gardner? Well, Jets coach Robert Saleh didn’t exactly set a low bar, either.
“The kid can do it all,” Saleh said during spring workouts. “We won’t put him in a position where we know he won’t succeed. That’s a promise. But there’s not much of that in his game.”
Perhaps the best indicator of what lies ahead for Gardner is the recent history of highly drafted cornerbacks.
Some football coaches think the transition from one level to the next gets easier the further away from center that a player lines up, meaning receivers and cornerbacks should make the quickest adjustments. That theory certainly has been proven true on offense in recent years — just ask Justin Jefferson, Jaylen Waddle and Ja’Marr Chase, who set the bar for fellow Jets rookie Garrett Wilson — but not necessarily on defense.
The Texans’ Derek Stingley Jr. (pick No. 3) and Gardner became the 20th and 21st cornerbacks drafted with top-10 picks since 2000. Of the first 19 rookies, only Patrick Peterson (2011) and Denzel Ward (2018) were Pro Bowl selections. Peterson also is one of just 22 rookies at any position in 22 seasons to be named First-Team All-Pro, but his selection — like seven others in the group — came as a special teams returner.
In fact, cornerback is among the most difficult positions for a rookie to immediately join the ranks of the elite. For the same reason that Darrelle Revis (pick No. 14 in 2007) was able to build an island, rookies can lose confidence under the pressure of playing man-to-man coverage on the outside.
Gardner enters the NFL with no shortage of confidence.
“If you keep making mistakes, it’s like you are making the decision to make a mistake,” Gardner said. “I want to be perfect, even if there’s no such thing.”
The breakdown of Defensive Rookie of the Year winners since 2000 reveals nine inside linebackers, eight edge rushers, three defensive tackles and just two cornerbacks (non-top-10 first-rounders Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Peters).
Pro Football Reference assigns a numerical Approximate Value (the scale runs from -6 to 26) to every individual season since 1950. Removing Peterson’s score of 22 — inflated by his punt returns, though his 13 passes defended and two interceptions can’t be overlooked — the average rookie season for the other 18 equates to a low-impact 4.9.
The next-best Approximate Value seasons belong to the Cowboys’ Terence Newman (20 passes defended and four interceptions in 2003), Jaguars’ Jalen Ramsey (14 and two in 2016), Browns’ Ward (11 and three in 2018), Texans’ Dunta Robinson (19 and six in 2004) and Broncos’ Patrick Surtain II (14 and four in 2021).
“He’s got some Ramsey to his game,” one NFL scout told The Post of Gardner.
Like most other positions, cornerback is not immune to top-10 flops, however.
The Jets’ own Dee Milliner and the Browns’ Justin Gilbert were out of the league in less than four seasons. Three of the lowest-scoring Approximate Value seasons happened within the last two years, by the Jaguars’ C.J. Henderson, the Lions’ Jeff Okudah and the Panthers’ Jaycee Horn. Milliner, Gilbert, Robinson and soon-to-be third-year players Okudah and Henderson trended in the wrong direction after rookie seasons, based on the metric.
Just don’t tell that to Showalter. Or to Saleh. Or to the self-confident Gardner. Even the mixed bag of historical results won’t satisfy their expectations.