After the Patriots took Christian Gonzalez with the 17th overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft last month, you probably heard that he had been widely projected as a top-10 pick. That he was viewed as, at worst, the second-best cornerback in his class. That New England was surprised and fortunate to land him when it did.
What made Gonzalez such a highly touted prospect in the eyes of nearly every prominent draft analyst? Why did seemingly everyone expect the Oregon product to come off the board at No. 6 overall, or No. 7, or No. 9, not all the way down at No. 17? And what, exactly, will he bring to the Patriots’ secondary?
In order to further educate ourselves about the strengths and weaknesses of New England’s top pick, we took a deep dive into Gonzalez’s film from the 2022 season. This review included full-game cutups from six of Oregon’s games (Georgia, BYU, Stanford, UCLA, Washington and Utah) and extended highlights from two others (Colorado and Oregon State).
Our conclusion: Gonzalez is not a flawless prospect, but he has all the skills necessary to become a legitimate, Pro Bowl-caliber No. 1 corner for the Patriots.
Let’s break it down:
The two words that come to mind when watching Gonzalez cover are “fluid” and “sticky.” He has the straight-line speed (4.38-second 40-yard dash) and awareness to velcro himself to receivers on vertical routes and the quickness to stick with them underneath. At 6-foot-1, 197 pounds, he’s tall and long enough to match up against bigger wide receivers — an asset New England’s shorter cornerback group lacked for much of last season. We even saw one instance of Gonzalez manning up a 6-foot-6 tight end in the red zone.
Gonzalez’s blend of size, athleticism and ball skills made him nearly unbeatable on deep balls last season. He was in coverage on nine passes that traveled 20-plus yards downfield, per USA TODAY’s Doug Farrar, and those plays resulted in more interceptions (three) than completions (two for 69 yards). And one of those catches was a near-INT that the receiver ripped away at the last moment:
Only five NFL teams allowed more 20-plus-yard pass plays than the Patriots last season, per Radar360, so Gonzalez’s ability to snuff out downfield heaves will be a welcome addition.
Gonzalez finished his final collegiate season with four interceptions and 11 passes defended. Patriots offensive line coach Adrian Klemm held the same position at Oregon in 2022, and he said the 20-year-old cover man was “a guy that just made big plays continuously.”
“There were a number of times where there’s a turnover, and he’s the guy running off the field with the ball in his hand,” Klemm recently said. “When we needed plays to be made at Oregon, he was the guy making those plays, and he made them routinely. He was somebody that we can count on, and I expect it to be the same here, and even more elevated with the additional coaching.”
The main knocks on Gonzalez coming out of the draft were his play in run support and lack of an “alpha dog” mentality. And folks expecting him to routinely dish out pad-rattling hits likely will be disappointed. But while he’s not a knockback tackler, he was an effective one in nearly all of the games he played last season. Pro Football Focus credited him with just three missed tackles in 2022. His 6% missed tackle rate would have ranked third among Patriots cornerbacks, just behind Jonathan Jones (5.6%).
The Patriots likely will work to improve his tackling technique, however, and get him to play with a bit more physicality in that area. Many of his open-field tackles last season were ankle tackles that bigger or quicker ball-carriers might be able to evade, and we saw multiple examples of him bringing down opponents, but only after they’d gained an extra couple of yards after contact.
Gonzalez mostly played as an outside cornerback for Oregon, and that’ll likely be his primary role with the Patriots. Ideally, New England will be able to roll out a three-corner nickel package that features Gonzalez and Jack Jones on the perimeter and Jonathan Jones in the slot, with Marcus Jones serving as the fourth cornerback. That’s assuming Gonzalez is able to quickly adjust to the NFL game — which will be the expectation for a player at his draft slot — and Jack Jones is back in Bill Belichick’s good graces after his team-imposed suspension.
But Gonzalez also has positional versatility. Roughly 30% of his snaps last season came either in the slot (139 total) or in the box (73), per PFF, so he’s not a player the Patriots need to pigeonhole into one specific alignment.
Gonzalez also showed an ability to make plays out of multiple coverage concepts. That was evident in Oregon’s matchup with his old school, Colorado. He had two interceptions in that game: one in off-man coverage against a vertical route, and another in deep zone coverage, with Gonzalez undercutting on out-and-up to make a play on the ball. He also pulled down this freakishly athletic pick in a rivalry game against Oregon State:
Gonzalez showed playmaking ability after each of those interceptions, too, averaging 29.5 yards per return. That’ll fit in well in a Patriots defense that scored an NFL-high seven defensive touchdowns a year ago.
Oregon also occasionally sent Gonzalez on cornerback blitzes.
Gonzalez played a total of 12 games at Oregon after transferring in from Colorado. In the final 11, he was largely excellent. But his Ducks debut was a nightmare.
Oregon’s 49-3 loss to eventual national champion Georgia was a truly dreadful game for Gonzalez — by far his worst of the season. His pass coverage in the lopsided defeat wasn’t horrendous — though wideout Adonai Mitchell did beat him on a third-down slant and again later for a back-shoulder touchdown — but he consistently struggled as a run defender and on screen passes.
While reviewing the Georgia game, we dinged Gonzalez for nine negative plays, nearly twice as many as we saw in all of his other contests combined. Five of those came on Bulldogs touchdowns, even if he wasn’t the lone defender at fault on those. There were missed tackles, poor pursuit angles, late reads.
Despite his 4.38 speed, he was a half-step behind all afternoon. More than anything, he looked tentative. Unsure. Lacking confidence.
And honestly, that’s understandable. This was Gonzalez’s first game in a new defense, and he was playing against a team that went 29-1 over the last two seasons and reeled off back-to-back national titles. It makes sense that he didn’t step in and immediately dominate against such a juggernaut opponent, and his play over the rest of the season made this performance look like an unfortunate anomaly.
Gonzalez will be facing Georgia-caliber players on a weekly basis in the NFL, however, and he could be quickly thrust into a starting role for the Patriots. He’ll need to prove this game was simply one bad day amid unfavorable circumstances, not a cause for concern.