‘I'm Him' — Brash, talented Gardner-Johnson fitting right in


A lot of players would have been a little timid entering a new locker room after joining a team just 11 days before the season opener.

Not C.J. Gardner-Johnson.

The Eagles’ 24-year-old safety has been unapologetically letting his personality loose from the moment he arrived in Philadelphia in late August.

“I’m Him,” Gardner-Johnson said to NBC Sports Philadelphia on Wednesday. “What Jalen Ramsey say? I’m Him. Just let if fly.

“You just gotta play football. We’re all unique in our own ways. I’m here to do a job, play my role and make sure the ball don’t go over my head.”

Gardner-Johnson is loud, brash, energetic and talented. He’s constantly mean-mugging and flexing in the background of locker room speech videos, he brings the juice every day in practice and he listens to NBA Youngboy before games. In his first three NFL seasons with the Saints, he’s been known as much for his trash-talking as his electric play.

And it didn’t take long for his new teammates to understand that Gardner-Johnson is a different kind of cat. That personality was on display from the get-go.

“Right away. Day 1,” said James Bradberry, who called Gardner-Johnson one of his favorite teammates. “As soon as he walked in the building.”

The Eagles don’t want to stifle any part of him either.

Fellow starting safety Marcus Epps admitted Gardner-Johnson’s personality is “at lot, for sure,” but said the organization does a great job letting their players be themselves.

“I love it. I ain’t complain yet,” Gardner-Johnson said. “I’ll never complain really. I’ve been the happiest since I’ve been here.”

That doesn’t mean Gardner-Johnson hasn’t taken some getting used to. Fellow safety K’Von Wallace knew Gardner-Johnson before the trade so he knew what to expect.

“He’s a Florida guy,” Wallace said. “Florida guys got a unique persona about them. And he’s loud, he’s outgoing and you need that on the team. A guy that’s going to go out there, talk smack and bring the energy. We had to get used to it but I feel like now, going into Week 6, we’re winning and it’s obviously getting better.”

Gardner-Johnson is getting better on the field too. In New Orleans, he primarily played the nickel cornerback role but the Eagles moved him to safety and really showed their commitment to playing Gardner-Johnson at that position the last two weeks. Without Avonte Maddox, the Eagles kept Gardner-Johnson at safety.

On Sunday in Arizona, Gardner-Johnson led the team with 10 tackles and in the first quarter notched his first interception as an Eagle.

“First of many,” he said.

Obviously, there’s a learning curve for a player who is at a new position and learning a new defense at the same time. Gardner-Johnson has previously boasted that he’s a professional and the fact that he was able to play so much from the beginning of the season backs that up. Brandon Graham said Gardner-Johnson told him the biggest change for him in this new defense was the terminology.

But playing a new position can’t be as easy as Gardner-Johnson makes it seem. Upon his arrival in Philly, Gardner-Johnson answered questions about his position change by calling himself a “football player” and expressing complete confidence in his ability to play safety.

It’s clear, though, that he’s improving week-by-week. And Gardner-Johnson is aware that one of the criticisms of him has been about missed tackles; ProFootballFocus has assigned eight to him this season.

“Everyone talks about tackling,” he said. “Everyone get paid in this s—. Everybody not pushovers, so it don’t really bother me. I ain’t practice all preseason, I ain’t practice all camp. So for me to come in a week before the season starts, you know how much trust this front office and this coaching staff has in me? So I’m not worried about nobody else outside of that.”

The Eagles took a big swing by acquiring Gardner-Johnson. They could have gone the safe route and entered the season with Epps and Anthony Harris as their starting safeties. But the front office realized they needed a playmaker on the back end.

Five games into the season, Gardner-Johnson is beginning to live up to that.

“You see a skill set starting to show up,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon said. “Why we acquired him.”

After this season, the Eagles will have some difficult decisions with so many players on expiring contracts and Gardner-Johnson is one of them. He’s playing this season on the final year of his rookie deal, making $2.54 million in 2022.

The absence of a contract extension is why Gardner-Johnson’s participation was limited in training camp with the Saints and it’s one of the reasons he was traded. If Gardner-Johnson continues to get better, he has the chance to earn a major payday at a more lucrative position with the Eagles.

But as he waits for that extension, Gardner-Johnson is making his mark on the field and in the locker room for the 2022 Eagles.

Just ask his teammates about him and they’ll smile. Once they figure out who you want to talk about.

“He’s got so many names, bro,” Wallace said. “C.J., Ceedy (Duce), Chauncy, Gardner. He’s got about six other names.”

Whatever you call him, Gardner-Johnson is always himself.

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