Sauce Gardner did something fairly extraordinary after the New York Jets selected him with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2022 draft. The stud cornerback exceeded outrageous expectations and hype, turning in one of the great rookie seasons in NFL history.
And just as he shut down the league’s top receivers week after week, Gardner distanced himself from strong competition to be the frontrunner for the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.
“I feel like I had a great season,” Gardner said Sunday after the Jets played their final game, losing 11-6 to the Miami Dolphins.
Yes, Gardner had a great season. But there were others who stood out as well. That said, let’s look at which players are in the running for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and why Gardner will win the award.
3. Tariq Woolen, CB, Seattle Seahawks
Woolen entered the NFL with much less hype than Sauce Gardner but will be joining the Jets star in the Pro Bowl as a rookie. A fifth-round draft pick, Woolen is a big-time playmaker, who tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions and also had three fumble recoveries.
He made his mark early on, with picks in four consecutive games from Week 3-6. In 644 coverage snaps, Woolen allowed 549 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Quarterbacks completed 55.9 percent of their passes against him.
It was a heckuva’ rookie campaign and Woolen was a big reason the Seahawks returned to the NFL playoffs this season.
2. Aiden Hutchinson, Edge, Detroit Lions
Talk about doing it all. Hutchinson burst on to the scene in Detroit, leading NFL rookies with 9.5 sacks. He also had three interceptions, which speaks to his freakish athletic ability.
The No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 draft, Hutchinson was a Day 1 starter, who played the second-most defensive snaps on the Lions. He announced his arrival in Week 2, when he had three sacks against the Washington Commanders. He also helped blow up the Green Bay Packers playoff hopes by sacking Aaron Rodgers twice in a Week 18 win.
Hutchinson has a relentless motor and is going to be a star in this League for years to come.
1. Sauce Gardner, CB, New York Jets
Woolen and Hutchinson appear to be stars in the making. But Sauce Gardner seems destined for all-time greatness. His career path may be more about reaching the Football Hall of Fame one day than how many Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors he receives.
Yes, he’s that good.
Gardner played a massive role in transforming the Jets defense from a laughing stock to a force. The Jets had the worst-rated defense in 2021 and ended 2022 ranked fourth in the League. The emergence of linemen Quinnen Williams and the outstanding play of fellow corner D.J. Reed played major roles in the upgrade, too. But Gardner was at the heart of the turnaround with his outstanding play and full-on swagger, and as an emerging vocal leader.
Week after week, Gardner shut down the likes of Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, Justin Jefferson, D.K. Metcalf, Jaylen Waddle, and Mark Andrews. Not just held his own at the toughest defensive position to master as a rookie in the NFL. He dominated.
It got to the point that some teams refused to throw in Gardner’s direction at all. That frustrated the 22-year-old, who lives to singlehandedly take top playmakers off their game. But what it did do was force opponents out of their comfort zones, having to game plan against him.
Simply, Gardner has the makings of a generational player.
Not once in 17 games did Gardner suffer a letdown. His excellence was consistent. He led the NFL with 20 passes defensed, had two interceptions, and 75 tackles. Pro Football Focus gave him an overall grade of 90.2, tops among all corners in the NFL.
In 642 coverage snaps, Gardner allowed 344 yards receiving. That’s just an absurdly low number. Quarterbacks completed only 45.2 percent of their passes against him. And he allowed one touchdown. Though Gardner claimed Sunday that he didn’t surrender a single one this season.
No matter. Sauce Gardner is the clear-cut choice to be NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.