Last year’s New England Patriots draft was headlined by what the NFL world viewed as a major first-round reach.
This year’s version opened with an incredible first-round steal.
After trading down three spots, the Patriots used the 17th overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft to select Oregon cornerback Christian Gonzalez, whose tumble to the late teens was one of Thursday night’s most surprising developments.
Gonzalez entered draft night as a projected top-10 pick, with most prominent analysts viewing him as, at worst, the second-best corner in his class. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler had him at No. 1 for his position and No. 5 overall. ESPN’s Todd McShay pegged him as the No. 2 corner behind Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon and the eighth-best prospect. NFL Media’s Daniel Jeremiah had him second among corners and 10th overall.
But Gonzalez slid, and slid, and slid, before the Patriots finally halted his fall at No. 17. He wound up being the third corner selected behind Witherspoon (No. 5 to Seattle) and Mississippi State’s Emmanuel Forbes (No. 16 to Washington). And while many draft-night declarations prove foolish, this seems like a home-run selection for a New England team that needed help at cornerback.
The skinny on Gonzalez:
— At 6-foot-1, 197 pounds, he’s exactly the body type this position group lacked last season, when the Patriots mostly relied on 5-foot-10 Jonathan Jones, 5-11 Jack Jones, 5-8 Marcus Jones and 5-9 Myles Bryant. (Jalen Mills, who checks in at 6 feet even, missed the final six games and reportedly is moving to safety.)
— Gonzalez is extremely athletic. He didn’t take part in agility drills like the three-cone and short shuttle pre-draft, but his 40-yard dash ranked in the 89th percentile among cornerbacks, and his vertical and broad jump both ranked in the 95th percentile or better, per Mockdraftable. His height also was in the 89th percentile, with his weight, arm length, wingspan and hand size all 68th percentile or higher.
— Gonzalez started all 30 games he played in over his three collegiate seasons (two at Colorado, one at Oregon) and the only game he missed was due to a bowl-game opt-out. The Patriots love draft prospects with multiple years of starting experience, especially in Round 1. Gonzalez still is young, though. He doesn’t turn 21 until June. All but one of the Patriots’ draft picks last year were at least 22 when their rookie season began, and several were 24.
— In his lone season with the Ducks, Gonzalez had four interceptions and 11 passes defended. He played mostly as an outside cornerback (501 snaps, per Pro Football Focus) but did see some time in the slot (139). Scouting reports praise his size, fluidity, ball skills and physicality. Here’s his entry on Jeremiah’s big board:
Gonzalez is a tall and fluid cornerback with excellent ball skills. He is physical in press coverage, but can easily flip his hips and stay in position down the field. He does a nice job finding and playing the ball when his back is to the quarterback. He has excellent hands to attack and take the ball away. In off coverage, he isn’t super twitchy on his plant-and-drive; he’s more of a smooth mover than a dynamic/explosive closer. He is a very willing and physical tackler against the run. Overall, Gonzalez gave up some plays early in the 2022 campaign, but he improved throughout the year and should be a quality Day 1 starting cornerback.
In his introductory Zoom call, Gonzalez described himself as “somebody that’s versatile, fast, long, tall, that can move around.”
“Somebody that loves to learn,” he added, “and just wants to learn all the nuances of the defense and how they all build together.”
— The Patriots had inside info on Gonzalez from new offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, who was Oregon’s O-line coach and assistant head coach last season. While Klemm didn’t coach Gonzalez directly, he surely relayed a positive review to head coach Bill Belichick.
Gonzalez is just the second cornerback the Patriots have drafted in the first round under Belichick (Devin McCourty, 2010). He’ll be expected to develop into the Pro Bowl-caliber cover man that New England has featured for much of the Belichick era (Ty Law, Asante Samuel, Aqib Talib, Darrelle Revis, Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson) but notably lacked a year ago.
In summary, the Patriots kicked off their draft by adding a premium player at a clear position of need far later than he was expected to go. And they picked up an extra fourth-round pick in the process (No. 120 overall from Pittsburgh), giving them four total picks in that round and four more in the sixth to use in their seemingly inevitable Day 2 trade-up(s).
New England has traded up in the second round in each of the last five drafts. It currently owns the 46th overall pick in Round 2 and No. 76 in Round 3.