The Jets had the worst defense in the league in 2021 and part of their plan to remedy that involved using the fourth overall pick of this year’s draft on cornerback Sauce Gardner.
Gardner’s mix of size, strength, and athleticism had made him a shutout corner at Cincinnati and the Jets’ hope was that he’d develop into one at the professional level as well. They didn’t have to wait long for Sauce to be ready.
Gardner did a good job on Ravens tight end Mark Andrews in Week One and then went on to be a main factor in holding players like Ja'Marr Chase, Tyreek Hill, Justin Jefferson, and Stefon Diggs below their usual standards in other games. There would be long stretches where quarterbacks avoided Gardner’s side of the field and throwing his way resulted in low passer ratings, completion percentages and postive results.
By the end of the year, Gardner had been selected for the Pro Bowl and he’s a strong contender for All-Pro status as he quickly rose to the top of the ranks of cornerbacks with all levels of experience. He finished the year with a league-high 20 passes defensed and also recorded 75 tackles and two interceptions as the Jets went from the bottom of the league’s defenses to being one of the toughest units in the league with Gardner’s work in pass coverage helping the pass rush find success.
It didn’t prove to be enough for the Jets to make the playoffs, but the defense remained stout as the offense fell apart in the final weeks and kept the Jets alive through Week 17.
That total package is why PFT has selected Gardner as our defensive rookie of the year for the 2022 season.
While Gardner took the top spot, there were other worthy standouts on defense. Second overall pick Aidan Hutchinson played a huge role in the Lions’ turnaround and capped the year with two sacks of Aaron Rodgers in a Week 18 win. Safety Kerby Joseph helped settle the back end in Detroit and pass rusher James Houston also starred for the Lions down the stretch. All three provide reason to believe that this year is just the start of good times in Detroit.
Seahawks cornerback Tariq Woolen led the league with six interceptions and helped Seattle make it back to the playoffs. Giants edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux will also be in the postseason and his play against the Commanders in late December was a big part of getting the team to the postseason. Safety Jalen Pitre looked like a building block for the Texans and Jaquan Brisker provided some reason for hope with his safety play in Chicago.
As good as those players were, Gardner stood out in 2022.