Surprised by the Patriots’ first-round draft pick Thursday night? So were the people making it.
Oregon cornerback Christian Gonzalez unexpectedly slid to New England at No. 17 overall after being widely projected as a top-10 prospect. Most prominent draft analysts viewed him as either the best corner prospect in this year’s draft or the second-best behind Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon, who went fifth overall to Seattle.
Speaking after Round 1 concluded, director of player personnel Matt Groh admitted the Patriots weren’t expecting Gonzalez to be available to them.
“These mock drafts, they’re all well and good,” Groh said in a video conference. “And look, we try to gather as much information as we can from the different teams, our friends and colleagues around the league. I’d say overall, there probably was some surprise that he lasted as long as he did. But we’ve just got our players stacked the way we’ve got them. We can’t predict what anybody else is going to do. We try to get as good a feeling for that as possible.”
The Patriots didn’t just land a premier prospect at a clear position of need. They did so after trading down three spots, acquiring an extra fourth-round pick (No. 120 overall) from the Pittsburgh Steelers to move from No. 14 to 17. New England risked missing out on Gonzalez — whom corner-needy teams like the Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons and Las Vegas Raiders had passed on — by dropping down the board. But Groh said the Patriots’ draft room had “a feeling that he might still be available.”
Pittsburgh vaulted up to take Georgia’s Broderick Jones, the last of the top-tier offensive tackles who hadn’t been picked. The New York Jets, picking at No. 15, had a need at tackle but not at cornerback (they wound up grabbing Iowa State edge rusher Will McDonald IV), and the Patriots believed the Washington Commanders preferred a different corner at No. 16: Mississippi State’s Emmanuel Forbes. That intel proved correct, leaving Gonzalez for New England to nab.
“We thought he was a good player,” Groh said. “We would have certainly understood if he wasn’t (available at No. 17).”
Groh credited Patriots scouts Tony Kinkela and Chris Caminiti for their work on Gonzalez, offensive line coach Adrian Klemm for the insight he was able to provide after working on Oregon’s staff last season, and personnel execs Eliot Wolf and Pat Stewart for helping close the deal with the Steelers. He also revealed that a first-round trade-up “was in play” Thursday night, but the Patriots opted for the opposite.
Their trade netted them a stud cover man and an extra mid-round pick that they can use to maneuver up the board on Day 2 if they so choose. The Patriots traded up in the second round in each of the last five drafts. Now armed with four picks in Round 4 and four more in Round 6, it seems likely that they’ll pull off at least one such move on Friday.