FOXBORO — The Patriots went into the 2023 offseason with one glaringly obvious need, and despite getting maybe a little bit too cute by trading back three spots, they landed the exact player they needed in the first round when they drafted cornerback Christian Gonzalez.
It’s still very early. The Patriots have yet to strap on pads, and only three days of training camp have passed, but Gonzalez has come in since Wednesday’s first practice and provided everything the team has needed as a starting cornerback.
The Patriots desperately needed a cornerback with size who could match up with bigger, more physical receivers. The cornerbacks on the Patriots’ roster were either small in stature or bulk, or not worthy of a starting spot on the roster.
Enter the 6-foot-2, 205-pound rookie who has matched up well with bigger, physical receivers three days into camp.
Gonzalez has been targeted eight times so far through three practices. He’s allowed just four catches with two pass breakups. He was targeted three times Friday and allowed a catch on one short pass with a pass breakup over 6-foot-3, 215-pound wide receiver DeVante Parker. Quarterback Mac Jones borderline went after Gonzalez in Thursday’s practice, targeting him on four of his first five 11-on-11 reps. Gonzalez held his own, letting up two catches with a pass breakup over 6-foot-1, 215-pound wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
“It’s fun,” Gonzalez said about taking first-team reps. “I go out there and get the best competition I can. It’s all about just — it’s me in there with the vets and just learning how they play. And them learning how I play, as well. We’re all just bonding on and off the field.”
One of the best compliments you could give Gonzalez is that there’s been no noticeable dropoff for the Patriots’ defense — a dominant unit in 2022 — with the 21-year-old defender inserted into the mix. The Patriots lost just one defensive starter from last season when legendary safety Devin McCourty retired. Gonzalez isn’t a 1-for-1 replacement because they play different positions, but he’ll likely be the only completely new starter in the unit this season as multiple safeties rotate to replace McCourty.
It sounds like Gonzalez’s position group has been receiving extra attention from head coach Bill Belichick.
“It’s real fun to be able to be coached by him,” Gonzalez said. “He’s one of the best ever, especially with DBs. Him being in our room and doing all that, it’s just real fun to be able to watch him growing up and then come be a part of it.”
Gonzalez is absolutely correct. There’s an impressive list of defensive backs who have thrived in New England under Belichick from McCourty to Ty Law, Darrelle Revis, Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, JC Jackson, Rodney Harrison, Patrick Chung, Jonathan Jones and many others.
The Patriots need a cornerback in the mold of Law, Revis and Gilmore to lock down one side of the field when the defense is playing man coverage. Gonzalez has the potential to be that type of player, and he’s showing signs of dominance early in camp.