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Florida Gators in the NFL, Week 3: CJ Henderson’s young career gets a reboot

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The Jaguars cast off their 2020 first-rounder. He’ll get a second chance at a fresh start in Carolina.

Detroit Lions v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

Friend of the blog and Thursday Night Football crew member Shawn Kopelakis drops off another dispatch from the sidelines in the pros...

In his first game in the NFL last September, CJ Henderson intercepted likely future Hall of Famer Philip Rivers. Late in that game, Henderson broke up a pass intended for T.Y. Hilton on fourth down, securing the win for Jacksonville. The ninth overall pick of the 2020 draft, Henderson appeared headed toward a long, successful career in Jacksonville.

But on Monday, the Jaguars — who have not won a regular season game since that home opener — gave up on Henderson after just 10 games played, trading him to the Carolina Panthers along with a fifth-round pick for reserve tight end Dan Arnold and a third-rounder.

The trade wasn’t shocking, only because there had been rumors for months that Jacksonville was looking to move on from Henderson. But in giving up on a top-10 pick so fast, the Jags did what few franchises in the history of the league have done.

Henderson wasn’t a reach, or at least not a notable one; he was a consensus top-15 talent and rated by most draft analysts as one of the best corners in the 2020 draft. He showed flashes of his high potential in the eight games he played last season before a groin injury ended his campaign early. In addition to the strong debut against Rivers and Hilton, he held his own in a matchup with Packers star receiver Davante Adams. There were the usual ups and downs rookie corners have in making the transition to the NFL, but Henderson showed he belonged in those eight games.

When Urban Meyer was hired in Jacksonville, I assumed he’d be excited to inherit a player of Henderson’s abilities. Their shared Gainesville ties (although obviously their time didn’t overlap) figured to help as well. Yet just as training camp opened, trade rumors began to circulate. Meyer claimed there was nothing to them in early August. After a stint on the COVID-19 reserve list, Henderson had a good preseason — Pro Football Focus gave him the third-highest coverage grade of the preseason among corners — despite the trade rumors, and appeared to have earned some trust from Meyer, defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, and the Jags’ new staff.

Whatever their reasons, Jacksonville and Meyer decided to move on from an athletic, rangy prospect who turns 23 this week. Henderson has a fresh start in Carolina with a surprising Panthers team. He’s seemingly in a much better situation now, joining a defense with some very good talent rather than Jacksonville’s rebuilding unit. The Panthers lost their own young top-10 corner last week when rookie Jaycee Horn suffered a broken foot, so Henderson should slot right into the starting lineup and be given a chance to fulfill his high potential.

I was looking forward to seeing Henderson in action this Thursday in Cincinnati. Instead, I’ll have to look to the trenches for Jawaan Taylor and Taven Bryan, who like Henderson have been labeled underperformers for the Jags. I’m also excited to see Lerentee McCray, who has had one of the most unexpected professional careers of any former Gator.

McCray played under Meyer at Florida and was a part of the 2008 recruiting class. He was a little-used reserve on that national championship team as a freshman, and played in 42 games and had 65 tackles in a mostly nondescript career — he had just 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in his career, and never had more than two TFLs or one sack in any one game — and and went undrafted in 2013.

But he embraced a special teams role and made the Broncos, winning a Super Bowl ring with them in 2015. He’s become a special teams leader in Jacksonville and is a captain this season. And while he didn’t record any stats in 2013 and opted out of the 2020 season, McCray has been receiving NFL paychecks for the last nine years.

That’s an especially impressive feat when you consider that none of his 2012 Florida teammates who were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft — Matt Elam, Sharrif Floyd, and Dominique Easley — have played a snap of NFL football since 2018, and only Easley even played (and for just three games) after 2016.

On the Bengals side, Evan McPherson has yet to miss a kick in the NFL, one of only nine kickers in the league without a miss this season.

Player of the Week

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson returned with a bang after missing last week with a knee injury. He harassed and tormented Mac Jones and the Patriots for most of the afternoon, racking up five tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss, two quarterback hits, and a pass breakup.

One play summed up his fantastic day.

You rarely see defensive ends or linebackers toss 300-pound tackles around like that. When Derwin James rocked Florida tackle Mason Halter — a Fordham transfer who, uh, did not make an NFL roster — off his feet in Florida State’s win over the Gators in 2017, it went viral.

CJGJ is, of course, a slot cornerback and safety. And he did his damage to an NFL tackle. (Interestingly, that guy was the Patriots’ backup right tackle, Justin Herron — who was forced into the lineup due to Trent Brown’s injury.)

Ceedy Deuce is known around the league for his ability to get under opposing players’ skin (and his own, from time to time). But he’s so much more, a weapon the Saints deploy all over the field, and he takes their defense to another level.

Play of the Week

Again this week, we could go with the player of the week’s big play. But once again, Dante Fowler garners the Play of the Week slot with a sack. Fowler’s big play allowed the Falcons to get the ball back and drive down for the game-winning field goal.

Here are all of the Week 3 stats for Florida players in the NFL, once again grouped and ranked in order of performance:

The Good

  • Chauncey Gardner-Johnson: 5 tackles, 1 sack, 2 TFL, 2 QB hits, 1 pass defended, 62 snaps (86%)
  • Dante Fowler, Jr.: 3 tackles, 1 sack, 1 QB hit, 1 FF, 1 pass defended, 48 snaps (69%)
  • Alex Anzalone: 5 tackles, 1 sack, 1 TFL, 1 QB hit, 58 snaps (100%)
  • Jonathan Greenard: 4 tackles, 1 sack, 1 TFL, 1 QB hit, 1 FF, 40 snaps (55%)
  • Marco Wilson: 6 tackles, 1 FF, 1 pass defended, 68 snaps (100%)
  • Marcus Maye: 9 tackles, 67 snaps (100%)
  • Van Jefferson: 4 receptions, 42 yards, 50 snaps (77%)
  • D.J. Humphries: 67 snaps (100%)
  • Vernon Hargreaves III: 8 tackles, 1 pass defended, 71 snaps (97%)
  • Kyle Pitts: 2 receptions, 35 yards, 52 snaps (84%)
  • Evan McPherson: 1/1 FG, long of 43 yards, 3/3 XP
  • Demarcus Robinson: 2 receptions, 17 yards, 57 snaps (72%)
  • Janoris Jenkins: 4 tackles, 1 pass defended, 61 snaps (100%)
  • Jon Bostic: 6 tackles, 39 snaps (49%)
  • Freddie Swain: 1 rec, 10 yds, 1 rush, 11 yds, 45 snaps (85%)
  • Carlos Dunlap: 3 tackles, 1 QB hit, 1 pass defended, 42 snaps (56%)
  • Jawaan Taylor: 68 snaps (100%)
  • Kadarius Toney: 2 rec, 16 yards, 46 snaps (66%)
  • Joe Haden: 2 tackles, 41 snaps (100%)

The Limited

  • Tommy Townsend: 1 punt, 51.0 Avg
  • T.J. Slaton: 1 tackle, 0.5 sacks, 1 QB hit, 2 snaps (3%)
  • Max Garcia: 41 snaps (61%)
  • Taven Bryan: 2 tackles, 1 TFL, 13 snaps (19%)
  • Jonathan Bullard: 1 tackle, 22 snaps (31%)
  • Lerentee McCray: 4 snaps on defense (6%), 26 snaps on special teams (90%), no stats
  • Marcell Harris: 25 snaps (40%), no stats
  • Stone Forsythe: 4 snaps on ST (16%)
  • Jeff Driskel: Zero snaps

The Inactive

  • Keanu Neal: DNP (COVID-19)
  • Trent Brown: DNP (calf)
  • C.J. Henderson: Inactive
  • La’mical Perine: Inactive
  • Kyle Trask: Inactive
  • Fred Johnson: Inactive