Summary: Ever since Jim Harbaugh took over Stanford, the Cardinal has featured a lot of tough physical players who control the line of scrimmage. Harbaugh recruited Gardner to Palo Alto from Mequon, Wisconsin because Gardner is a perfect fit for that style of play. At Stanford, Gardner was a nasty defender who spent the past three seasons as a bully up front.
Gardner was playing really well for Stanford in 2013 before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season after eight games. Gardner going down was a huge loss for the Stanford defense, and he was never truly replaced. Gardner was providing a lot of disruption with some big plays. In his eight games, he recorded 19 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble. The stats don't illustrate it, but Gardner helped teammate Trent Murphy lead the nation in sacks.
Gardner had a strong 2012 season with 49 tackles, 14.5 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks, five passes batted and a huge forced fumble - against Notre Dame. He had 35 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks in 2011.
To go along with his physicality, Gardner is very intelligent. He reads plays well and routinely gets in a position to help stuff runs. Gardner has more burst than one would think as a pass-rusher. He has excellent hands to shed linemen and cause disruption. Gardner also gives great effort and doesn't take plays off. He and Murphy formed a fabulous inside-outside tandem in the first half of the 2013 season for the Cardinal. Gardner played defensive end and tackle for Stanford.
At the next level, Gardner would fit best as a five-technique defensive end in a 3-4 defense. He has the length and strength at the point of attack to occupy offensive tackles and free up edge-rushers. Gardner would be a tough run-defender against tackles with the ability to offer some pass rush. In a 4-3 defense, he could move around the line but would probably end up as a left defensive end taking on right tackles.
Player Comparison: Brett Keisel. In terms of style of play, Gardner is very similar to Keisel. The veteran Keisel has had a great career since being a seventh-round pick out of BYU in 2002. Even with his injury, Gardner should go ahead of the seventh round and, like Keisel, he could be a steal. Gardner is almost the same size as Keisel (6-5, 285) with a similar skill set. They both are very tough at the point of attack with the strength to shed blockers. Each can get upfield and push the pocket as well. The Pro Bowler Keisel would be a great model for Gardner to try to duplicate.
NFL Matches: Washington, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis
The Redskins need to improve the talent on their defense, and taking a player whose play grades higher than their draft slot - see Bacarri Rambo and Philip Thomas - makes sense for Washington as the organization is without a first-round pick for the second straight season. Adam Carriker has been injury prone, and Gardner would be a good addition to the Redskins' defensive line.
The Colts are another team without a first-round pick that could consider Gardner. They have some veterans on their defensive line in Cory Redding (33) and Aubrayo Franklin (33). Indianapolis has to improve its defense, and landing Gardner in the mid-rounds could be a steal. He would be a nice fit for Chuck Pagano and the tough physical defense the coach wants to build.
The 49ers could use an understudy for Justin Smith. Gardner and Tank Carradine could be a great tandem to develop behind Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. With the drafting of Carradine and Marcus Lattimore, the 49ers have proven they're willing to select players coming back from injuries.
The Steelers need more talented youth on their defense. Ziggy Hood is a free agent, while Keisel is 35 and won't play forever. There is talk Pittsburgh may move on from Keisel this offseason. In the long run, Gardner could form a nice tandem with Cameron Heyward. Gardner could be a good fit for the Steelers' defense on the third day of the 2014 NFL Draft.
I really don't understand why you keep bashing the 49ers contracts. You have to overpay for guys when you have one of the worst rosters in the NFL. Beyond that, they have nearly $70 mill in cap space even after free agency, so what's the big deal if they overspend?