Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner had three interceptions in each of his three seasons at Cincinnati, with go-go gadget reach in a 6-3, 190-pound body that needed only 4.41 seconds to go 40 yards at the end of the NFL scouting combine on Sunday.
He's also got the confidence, or sauce as a Little League coach once said, required to be considered one of the best cornerback prospects in a lauded 2022 draft class.
"When I'm in a calm mood, I would say that's me being Ahmad," Gardner said through a sparkling grill at a podium in Indianapolis. "But the sauce is within me, so I'm always saucy."
The Vikings' repeatedly drafting cornerbacks in the top rounds became a running joke under former General Manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer, who always said the team "needed one more." But the Vikings' cornerback situation is no laughing matter.
New General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah needs maybe two or three more starters, putting the Vikings among the most cornerback-needy teams in the draft. They have only four cornerbacks — Cameron Dantzler, Kris Boyd, Harrison Hand and Parry Nickerson — signed for next season.
The Vikings, who have the 12th pick in the first round, can select from a class led by Gardner, Washington's Trent McDuffie and LSU's Derek Stingley Jr. Each has a claim to be the first drafted at the position. Gardner allowed zero touchdowns as a Bearcat.
"I don't have plans on giving one up in the NFL," Gardner said. "But, you know, I'm not going to dwell on the last play. As a cornerback, you got to have some short-term memory. So, I say that's my only disorder that I have: short-term memory loss."
Adofo-Mensah's first free-agent signings this month might need to include cornerbacks. The Vikings have exclusive negotiating rights with free agents Patrick Peterson and Mackensie Alexander, but they're soon free to talk with other teams next week and can sign as soon as 3 p.m. on March 16.
New Vikings defensive coordinator Ed Donatell prioritizes two skills in defensive backs: covering receivers one-on-one and making game-changing plays on the ball.
"First of all, we want them to have ball skills," Donatell said last month. "We want them to be able to cover man-to-man, if we're talking about corners or safeties. We'll have safeties that are interchangeable like the safeties that are playing here now. They can be down in the box and also in the deep part of the field, but ultimately it's the unit working together. If we can get corners outside that can cover man-to-man, that's a great asset."
At least five cornerbacks were selected in the first round of the past two drafts. That could happen again on April 28, but the depth of this class is what had NFL general managers optimistic last week in Indianapolis. Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta said, "You can get a corner at any point."
"There's some good corners and safeties in this draft," Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht said. "I don't know if the numbers are as high as they have been in the past — in terms of the top of the draft — but there's a lot of depth in the middle to late rounds at those positions."
The Vikings need help throughout the depth chart. There will be long-armed and physical options such as Florida's Kaiir Elam and Clemson's Andrew Booth Jr.; quick and strong possible slot corners in Washington's Kyler Gordon and Auburn's Roger McCreary; raw and rare talents such as Texas-San Antonio's Tariq Woolen, and sharp ballhawks like Cincinnati's Coby Bryant.
Gardner, Stingley and McDuffie are the consensus top three among draft analysts. Vikings defensive backs coach Daronte Jones coached Stingley at LSU last season, when the freakishly athletic corner suffered a Lisfranc (foot) injury and underwent surgery in September. He has coveted speed as well as a strong but brief track record for disruption. Stingley had six interceptions as a freshman in 2019, but injuries limited him to only 10 games over his past two seasons.
"I know that when I'm at the best version of myself, I'm the greatest," Stingley said.
McDuffie, a quick and pesky press defender at Washington, is considered one of the most well-rounded options. If you ask draft analysts Todd McShay of ESPN and Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Media, McDuffie is the Vikings' first-round pick.
"I play like I'm a linebacker," said McDuffie, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds. "I can tackle, love to tackle. I love to be in the mix. I love to be in the box. I used to tell our coaches all the time, man, put me at safety. Let me just go run the alley. Let me take on these linemen."