Jets head coach Robert Saleh says it is a "possibility" that cornerback Sauce Gardner will cover the opponent's top receivers this year.  Credit: Ed Murray

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Sauce Gardner and Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich spoke after last season, and one of the things that came up was Gardner shadowing the opposition’s best receiver more.

Top cornerbacks usually do that to try and keep star wideouts in check. Gardner has proved he’s one of the top corners. In Robert Saleh and Ulbrich’s defense, corners normally stay on one side of the field, but they’re open to changing their philosophy because of Gardner’s coverage skills.

“He is a weapon that we can use from a defensive standpoint,” Saleh said. “To say it will be exclusive, I’m not going to say that. He did it last year and to say he might do a little bit more — that’s a possibility. I think it’s going to be more game-to-game.”

In his first two NFL seasons, Gardner has won the Defensive Rookie of the Year, twice been named First-Team All-Pro and made two Pro Bowls. Gardner was only targeted 55 times last season, 31 fewer than his rookie season, according to Pro Football Reference.

Saleh said the Jets believe D.J. Reed is “an upper-echelon corner and can defend anybody,” but they also know teams are reluctant to throw at Gardner so they have to use that to their advantage.

“Teams definitely did not want to throw to Sauce’s side,” Saleh said. “I don’t know if it was deliberate, but it always ends up that way. To be able to move him around so they can’t just line up and say, ‘Hey we know where we’re going with the football,’ it would be an advantage for sure.”

Gardner welcomes that challenge.

“I would like to call myself one of the best in the game, if not the best,” Gardner said. “I’m always open to competing. I always want to challenge myself, challenge other people. Ultimately, I just want to do whatever it takes for the team to win.”

Gardner will have some difficult matchups right out of the gate with the Jets opening up with road games at San Francisco and Tennessee. Both teams have explosive wide receivers. The 49ers have Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel and the Titans boast DeAndre Hopkins and Calvin Ridley.

Some of the other receivers Gardner could be matched up against this season include Justin Jefferson, George Pickens, Stefon Diggs, Michael Pittman Jr., DK Metcalf, Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua. It’s nothing new for Gardner, who saw Diggs, Hill and Waddle twice a year from being in the same division.

“I see stuff on Instagram, on Twitter, ‘Sauce is going to have to guard these people,’ ” Gardner said. “If you really think about it, my first two years I had to go against elite receivers. That’s just what the game is. Pretty much every team has those elite receivers. It’s just we have to go up against him or they have to come see us. That’s what this sport is. Everybody’s competitors.”

Gardner is just focused on getting better and making sure he doesn’t get complacent. That’s not in Gardner’s DNA, though. He doesn’t want to let down his coaches, teammates or his fans.

This could be a big season for the Jets, if Aaron Rodgers, whose season ended in Week 1 last year, and other key players can stay healthy. The Jets improved the offensive line and receiver room. The defense, ranked No. 3 last year, could be stingier with Gardner traveling more. He believes it can be a special year.

“I feel like we can win a championship, a Super Bowl,” Gardner said. "We got the guys, we got the coaches, we got everything we need, the training staff, everything that it takes for us to be able to get to where we want to get to. We can’t get too high, can’t get too low, keep the main thing the main thing. Just always staying in the moment, not looking too far ahead. We know what we got, but in the snap of a finger it could all be gone.”

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