FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — New York Jets rookie Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner was named a Week 1 starter Sunday by coach Robert Saleh. Even before the announcement — a mere formality — Gardner already was thinking big things.
Looking ahead to the regular season, Gardner — drafted fourth overall — said he expects to “dominate” opponents. He believes he’s wired differently than other rookies, which, in his view, should minimize the typical growing pains.
“I think it’s going to be different than how most rookie seasons are,” Gardner said in an interview with ESPN. “People always talk about this rookie wall, things like that. I take football real serious, but at the same time, I have fun with it. I feel like that’s why I’m able to have so much success. When I’m on the field, I’m smiling and have a lot of fun with it.
“Everything comes natural,” he continued. “I don’t think I’m going to run into the quote-unquote rookie wall. I think I’ll just be able to go out there and dominate whoever lines up in front of [me].”
“Most definitely,” he said.
Every rookie corner has a target on his back; that’s how the NFL works. Gardner comes to the league with a sterling reputation — he didn’t allow a touchdown pass in college — but even the top prospects get tested, especially those who like to talk.
Gardner’s reaction? Bring it on.
“I’m just looking forward to it,” he said. “That’s all I have to say about that. I’ve heard that since I got in college my freshman year: ‘You know, they’re going to come after you.’ All right, I’ll be waiting.”
Gardner had a relatively quiet training camp, but quiet is good in his line of work. He didn’t make any highlight-film plays, but he also didn’t get torched by any of the Jets’ veteran receivers. He didn’t miss a single practice and, from all indications, worked hard at his craft.
And he did a lot of trash-talking. Like, nonstop.
“Sauce is always talking, whether it’s trash or not,” rookie wide receiver Garrett Wilson said. “I’d say he’s got the upper hand on trash-talking, for sure.”
Saleh said he hasn’t been around a rookie who talked this much since cornerback Jalen Ramsey, when Saleh was linebackers coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2016. Ramsey finished second in the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year voting and was a first-team All-Pro in his second season. “The best in football,” Saleh said.
Gardner has a ways to go before he reaches that level, but he’s got the vocal part down pat.
“The guy doesn’t stop talking when he’s on the football field — and he backs it up,” Saleh said.
Gardner doesn’t mind the Ramsey comparison.
“I feel like it’s true,” he said. “[Saleh] is just being honest. Jalen is a great player, he’s a great guy. That’s my guy. We chop it up every now and then. I see myself in him a little bit. We have a lot of the same tendencies, on and off the field, the way we carry ourselves, the way we talk a little bit of trash on the field.”
It’s unusual for a rookie to be that brash, but Gardner isn’t like most rookies. He already has an endorsement deal with Buffalo Wild Wings and his own signature sauce. It’s called “Sauce Sauce,” described as a combination of smoky sweet and spicy BBQ. He’s come a long way from the Detroit kid who was nicknamed “A1 Sauce Sweet Feet” Gardner by one of his youth football coaches. Eventually, it was shortened to … well, you know.
He actually played wide receiver until his sophomore year in high school, an experience that helps him now. His familiarity with the route tree and wide receiver splits helps him anticipate specific routes. A smart corner can eliminate certain routes based on where the receiver is lined up.
“A lot of things I just know when they’re coming,” Gardner said.
“He’s that guy that’s constantly collecting information and then sprinting back to the locker room and writing it down,” defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. “He’s just building this database right now.”
Gardner alternated with incumbent Bryce Hall throughout training camp, in large part because the coaching staff didn’t want to hand him a starting job because of his rookie status. They wanted him to earn it. Saleh made it official after Sunday’s preseason finale against the New York Giants, naming Gardner a starter after a “fantastic” summer.
“Sky’s the limit. I don’t think I have a ceiling,” Gardner said. “Ain’t no such thing as a ceiling. I pray to God, sky’s the limit.”