Stanford’s front seven is loaded with players that will likely be in NFL camps next year and most of which will be drafted. One of those players that will likely to be Ben Gardner and while he is technically a defensive end in their base 3-4 front, the Cardinal varies up their looks and Gardner will also play a lot of snaps as a 3-technique defensive tackle and occasionally a 4-3 defensive end. Stanford seems to always pride itself on being able to move players around and put them in different positions that allow them to succeed. Unfortunately for Gardner, his season ended prematurely with a pectoral injury that ends his college career in Palo Alto, so now he has to recover and work to prepare for the NFL Draft. The NFL Draft process will likely illuminate what Stanford has already known about Gardner; he is a terrific football player.
Gardner is slightly undersized for the NFL but has pretty good strength and notable athleticism that allows him to surprise opponents with his speed and his range. The coaching staff was not afraid to stunt him and have him loop around to rush the passer as well as counting on him to be an effective run stopper. Gardner has shown the ability to help create plays for his teammates but has also demonstrated the ability to go and make a big play for himself as well. There are some questions in regards to his stamina and his motor, but Gardner should be selected on the third day of the NFL Draft as a rotational defensive lineman that can give teams an added pass rushing threat as well as potentially developing into a starter.
Vitals & Build
Gardner is listed at 6’4” 277lbs and has a solid but unspectacular build for the position, but an intriguing frame. He shows impressive overall athletic ability, especially with his agility and speed but also has good functional strength and power. The problem with Gardner is that he does not always play to it and has an inconsistent motor. The pectoral injury that ended his season is relatively minor as far as injuries go and he should be able to make a full recovery pretty quickly. Gardner needs to continue filling out his body and trying to do it in a way that will not impact his athleticism, but he also needs to improve his stamina and motor.
Snap Anticipation & First Step
Gardner can fire off of the ball on time and get an immediate advantage. This gets better when he is motivated and his motor is running, showing an impressive first step and playing with great pad level that can allow him to get into the backfield almost immediately and disrupt plays. Gardner does a great job of firing out low and playing with good leverage off of the snap. This is especially the case when Gardner is lined up inside but he tends to do a pretty good in this respect when he is lined up outside and trying to attack up the field.
The times when Gardner is tired, he tends to play low, but his overall speed and energy level can taper off at times. Most players tend to get high when they get tired but Gardner does a pretty good job of making sure he stays low and seems really natural at playing low to the ground in general.
Gardner shows a lot of ability when it comes to taking on and shedding blocks. It starts with his active hands and pad level. He plays low to the ground and gets every bit of power out of his body. Gardner maintains active hands that are always working to gain an advantage and he is good at maintaining his leg drive even when opponents engage him, so he can get off of blocks and find ways to make plays.
He has shown he is not afraid to work inside or spill plays to maintain outside leverage and control the edge. Part of what allows Gardner to be effective is that he does a good job of keeping opponents guessing and not being so heavily reliant on one particular move. Gardner can use various moves, but he can use them from various angles and make the same move look different at different angles. He is also willing to shift his body and shift which half of a man he is taking on in a given play.
Gardner can rip and swim well. He demonstrates a pretty good snap spin move that allows him to win at times while not showing it so much that opponents are expecting it and can get adjusted to it. His bull rush is not overwhelming but he is smart with how he uses it to keep opponents honest and set them up for other moves. For instance, he will show a bull rush, back out and then get some momentum quickly and try to win with speed. Gardner has also shown that he does a good job of working half the man and trying to make it hard them to get a hold of him cleanly.
When it comes to stopping the run, Gardner tends to work one of two ways. He either wins off of the snap and gets into the backfield and forces the opponent to adjust to him or he holds up at the point of attack with the potential to come off of a block to make a play.
Gardner is not a player who is going to hold up against a double team. He is going to try to initiate the action and force them to adjust to him. As long as he is rested and working, he has shown the ability to make impact plays initially and with second efforts.
Gardner’s use of leverage and his feet probably make up for what might be relatively average strength. His game plays stronger than he might be and he can be extremely frustrating for opponent’s because in spite of his height and length, he plays really low to the ground and makes the opponent come down to his level.
His feet and quickness along with active hands make it so opponents have a tough time staying on a block with him. Gardner is always working, always trying to win which is probably why he does get tired like he does. Rested, he just keeps coming and is constantly a threat to make plays.
Gardner shows a pretty good amount of ability rushing the passer both from the edge as well as inside. He shows an impressive amount of speed and acceleration off of the edge without standing up too tall. Gardner has long arms and can work to the outside, directly at the blocker or go to the inside and has shown to be good at mixing up his looks. He has good body control and can stunt well and adjust his angle during his rush when he plants his foot in the ground.
Gardner’s ability to play low and bend makes him extremely effective at cornering around blockers and makes it so when he has the opportunity to get the quarterback, he does not miss often. Despite being a big guy by outside rushing standards, he tends to always be around the legs of his opponent and can adjust and accelerate to the quarterback quickly in a small area. His overall closing speed and can be deceptive. Gardner is not someone who looks like he will catch a quarterback rolling away from him too often, but when quarterbacks underrate his athleticism, he tends to end up surprising them with a sack.
Gardner can fit in just about any system in the NFL and that could be a reason he becomes popular during the draft process. His obvious fit is as a 5-technique defensive end in the 3-4 that could kick inside and rush the passer as a rush tackle in passing situations. He has a great build for that system and the upside to become a fulltime player in that scheme with a ton of experience already.
Gardner could also contribute in the 4-3 as a versatile player along the defensive line. Potentially, he could play as a 4-3 power end, but could also be moved inside to rush the passer or add athleticism inside in certain packages. The most of his experience is in the 3-4, but the Cardinal use plenty of hybrid looks and concepts so Gardner should make a seamless adjustment.
In some respects, he might be a tweener but the way he sort of falls in between a few positions might actually work in his favor with the style he plays and can allow him to give completely different looks at different spots as a rotational player, which is what could make him a great addition to an NFL roster. Move him around and let him make plays.
In many ways, Gardner’s game is similar to that of Derek Wolfe of the Denver Broncos. When Wolfe came out of Cincinnati, he was an undersized defensive tackle that proved to be a late riser in the draft process because of the versatility that Gardner possesses. Wolfe is a little bigger and longer than Gardner, but what made him an attractive option for the Broncos could make Gardner an intriguing option in a similar role. The injury puts a damper on Gardner’s future initially but the player Wolfe has become is ultimately could be where Gardner might top out if he can recover and continue developing.
Ben Gardner does so much well in terms of his technique and understanding of the game. He seems to be an extremely intelligent player with the knowledge of how to get the most from his body. Gardner has speed, but his power looks to be relatively average, but uses leverage to make it work. He still has potential going forward to continue to develop physically, which should only make him better. There are some motor and stamina questions but it is possible that he will actually benefit from being in the NFL and getting more in more of a rotation. If not for this pectoral injury, Gardner had the tools to be a player that might surprise people and end up going in the top 100 picks and this injury likely assures he is a day three pick. He could really be a tremendous pickup for a team that gets him at a great value as a rotational defensive lineman that could develop into a starter.
Some of the film used in this scouting breakdown was provided by the good folks at draftbreakdown.com