Washington currently has 12 UDFAs and a pair of 7th round drafted rookies on the roster, but that list of players is subject to a lot of change. In previous years, we’ve put together profiles of players only to see them cut by the team a day before the profile was set to publish (or a day after it did publish). In fact, in just the 4 weeks or so that followed the 2022 draft, we saw a lot of churn in this part of the roster among both UDFAs and veteran free agents, and more recently, 2 UDFAs that we’d already profiled were released to make room for 2 DBs from the USFL. We could easily see some more roster changes ahead of the start of training camp next week.
These articles about the bottom-of-the-roster players are not intended to suggest that any given player is bound for glory; rather, the articles are intended to celebrate the ongoing fight of each player to extend his NFL dream.
For those of you who appreciate the fight of the underdog, I hope you enjoy today’s article as wee approach the end of this season’s “UDFA Spotlight” series.
Ferrod Gardner, Safety, Louisiana-Lafayette
As I highlighted in the recent profile of CB Christian Holmes, the Commanders have clearly put a premium on older players with at least 4 seasons in building the 2022 rookie class, and Ferrod Gardner fits that mold as a 6-year player who was a redshirt senior for the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns (possibly the coolest team name in sports) in 2021. His team won the Sunbelt championship on their home field in his final collegiate game.
Source: Sports Reference
Interestingly, Gardner, who is 25 years old and listed on the team website at 6’1”, 215 pounds, played linebacker at Louisiana, but is expected to get a look at strong safety in Washington. His size would make him the heaviest safety on the Washington roster, though he is 5 pounds lighter than the Commanders’ lightest LB, Khaleke Hudson.
His career stats reflect the positional difference, with 237 tackles, but only 5 passes defended in his 4 seasons in the Sun Belt conference.
My first thought was that If he were to make the roster, it seemed almost certain that he would be primarily a special teams player who, if he got any defensive snaps at all, would probably be on the field as a 3rd safety on short yardage downs.
As I continued to read about Gardner, there were indications that he is probably much more than the short-yardage run-stuffer that I envisioned when I first started reading about him. For example, a draft profile said that he is “comfortable covering in space and can be relied upon to do so on obvious passing downs... [he can] quickly drop into his zones and gain depth in a timely manner”. Also, when asked to describe himself, Garner included “good coverage skills” in his short analysis. Dare I say it, with his ‘tweener’ size, Gardner might be a decent candidate for the much-beloved Buffalo Nickel role if he has the requisite short area quickness.
According to DraftScout.com, Gardner didn’t work out at his pro day due to a hamstring injury, and he was not invited to the combine, so there don’t seem to be any independent measurables for Ferrod Gardner.
Sports Illustrated wrote a pre-draft profile on Gardner, which is fairly flattering:
Gardner helps stretch the field laterally and works well as the force player to initiate blocks and fill gaps adequately. He sets the edge and at the very least has knowledge of the importance to scrape-to-contain the running back. Processes the offensive line blocking scheme and is quick to diagnose the flow of the play. As a tackler, Gardner is a reasonable tackler and is more than capable at making plays outside of his frame.
As agile as he is, the Louisiana-Lafayette linebacker is comfortable covering in space and can be relied upon to do so on obvious passing downs. Gardner’s good lateral shuffle and short-area quickness allow for him to quickly drop into his zones and gain depth in a timely manner.
As a multi-year starter for Louisiana-Lafayette, Gardner has grown into his role as a defensive leader. The sixth-year senior puts himself in a good position to fit the run with his processing and lateral mobility. Gardner still has to develop physically to match the level of the next level but he shows the intangibles required. If he works off blocks, he is a productive tackler and finds his way around the ball carrier. With time, Gardner could push for some playing time at the next level and has upside as a three-down linebacker.
In discussing his weaknesses, SI cited his difficulties in disengaging or fending off blockers, saying: “Although he will meet blockers head on, he seldomly engages with his hands. For that, Gardner has a hard time working off blocks and getting proper hand placement and extension. Poor job at playing through and off of blockers. Opposing players can drive him off his spot when he doesn’t get a running start to generate his power.” This may be less of an issue for Gardner playing as a safety than it was as a college linebacker, but it’s a skill he will need to work on if he wants to have a productive NFL career.
When SI asked Gardner to self-scout, this is how he described his game:
Speed, twitchy, athleticism, attacks the ball, great in space, good coverage skills, good blitzer.
In that same Sports Illustrated interview, there is an interesting question & answer:
Who is someone that has had an influence on you and what is a valuable lesson that you have learned from them?
Coach Napier, I learned that people deserve second chances. Napier came on and gave me a second chance and I will be forever grateful.
Coach Napier would be Billy Napier, currently the head coach at the University of Florida, who was in charge of the Ragin’ Cajuns football team from 2018-2021, the same 4 seasons that Gardner played for the team. Gardner was a redshirt freshman at Missouri in the SEC in 2015, then didn’t play football for two years before showing up at the FBS Sunbelt conference school in 2018.
It turns out that the 2016-17 window was an eventful one for Gardner. He had been a walk-on player at Missouri as a redshirt freshman in 2015, but attended Coffeyville Community College in Kansas in 2016 before being recruited to play at Louisiana, where he was part of the team in 2017. However, he was dismissed from the UL football team in October of that year. Here are some details from a newspaper article published shortly after his dismissal by then-coach Mark Hudspeth.
[Ferrod Gardner] has been dismissed from the UL football team for “violation of team rules,” a Ragin’ Cajuns spokesman said Thursday morning.
Gardner was slated to start at the Will inside linebacker position, but he never played a game for the Cajuns after undergoing season-ending surgery to repair a foot injured early in preseason camp.
Gardner was arrested last Friday for felony identity theft, a Lafayette Police Department spokesman confirmed Thursday afternoon.
Gardner’s bond was set at $5,000; he bonded out and was released from jail the next day, according to LPD Cpl. Bridgette P. Dugas.
No other details regarding the case was immediately made known.
Obviously, Gardner bounced back from the arrest and dismissal from the team to put together a successful 4-year career and establish himself as a defensive leader for his football team.
We all know how much Ron Rivera believes in “the right kind of guy” with regard to character, so it would seem that, like Coach Napier before him, Coach Rivera is satisfied that the legal issue from 5 years ago is well and truly in the past, and that the rookie is the type of defensive leader that can help the Washington Commanders.
When I look at the depth chart and focus on strong safety and WILL linebacker, I find myself wondering if Gardner doesn’t have a puncher’s chance of making the Commanders roster — if he can excel on special teams and has the needed athleticism.
Current Commanders depth chart
How excited are you that Ferrod Gardner was signed by the Commanders?
This poll is closed
5 - Very excited!
4 - Looks good...for a UDFA
3 - I’m okay; let’s wait and see
2 - I’m doubtful about this guy’s prospects
1 - This guy doesn’t belong in an NFL training camp