FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots have big plans for their top 2023 draft pick.

After missing the Patriots’ first open organized team activities practice last Wednesday, cornerback Christian Gonzalez practiced in front of reporters for the first time Tuesday. And while it’s too early to predict what their starting defense might look like, the Patriots clearly expect Gonzalez to immediately contribute.

When New England’s top defensive unit took the field for the first competitive 11-on-11 period, Gonzalez was manning one of the outside cornerback spots, with Jonathan Jones at the other, Jalen Mills in the slot and Kyle Dugger and Jabrill Peppers at safety. Jack Jones, whose strong rookie season was derailed by an injury and a team-imposed suspension, repped with the twos to start.

Jack Jones did work in with the first team in subsequent drills, but when he did, he replaced Jonathan Jones, not Gonzalez.

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Again, much can change between early June and Week 1, but Gonzalez — a projected top-10 pick in this year’s NFL draft who fell to New England at No. 17 — appears to be on the same Day 1 starter track that 2022 first-rounder Cole Strange followed last season.

“A lot of what we’re doing (in the spring) is really teaching, so the evaluations will come in training camp when we’re able to really go out there and compete against each other,” head coach Bill Belichick said before practice. “But he’s a smart kid. He’s got good skill. He’s got a pretty good level of experience from what he did in college at Colorado and Oregon. He’s learning out there every day like they all are.”

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There wasn’t much to glean from Gonzalez’s on-field performance Tuesday, especially because the Patriots’ top four wide receivers (JuJu Smith-Schuster, DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne and Tyquan Thornton) all were not practicing. But the highly touted Oregon product’s size, athleticism and fluidity were apparent. Simply put, he looks the part at this early stage of his pro career.

“It’s pretty effortless just the way he does everything,” safety Kyle Dugger said after practice. “The way he moves in and out of breaks, he runs easy. It just looks very light, very fluid. It’s easy to see.”

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Asked how he would describe Gonzalez, Dugger smiled and replied: “Athletic.” Gonzalez tested in the 89th percentile among corners in the 40-yard dash, the 95th percentile in the broad jump and the 96th percentile in the vertical jump at the NFL Scouting Combine, per Mockdratable, and at 6-foot-2, 201 pounds, he’ll add much-needed size and length to a Patriots defense that mostly relied on shorter cornerbacks last season.

“He’s very athletic, and he learns well,” Dugger said. “He learns really well. There hasn’t been a lot of time, so that’s all I can really say, but he learns fast. Very smart.”

Jalen Mills, who started at outside cornerback for the last two seasons and now is transitioning to a safety/slot role, also commended Gonzalez for his smarts and work ethic.

“Good, good,” Mills said. “(He’s) coming to work every day, focusing in meetings. I think that’s the biggest thing you want to see with these rookies, man. Are they taking what Coach is saying in the meetings out to the field? And as of right now, he’s doing that.”

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Mills said the soon-to-be 21-year-old will bring “hopefully a little more energy” to New England’s cornerback group. Gonzalez is one of four newcomers in that group, along with late-round draft picks Ameer Speed and Isaiah Bolden and former CFL player Rodney Randle. Jonathan Jones, Jack Jones, Marcus Jones, Myles Bryant, Shaun Wade, Tae Hayes and Quandre Mosely return from last season.

“He’s a little more quieter guy, but I’ve seen him play,” Mills said of Gonzalez. “I’ve seen him live in a couple of games this past year when he was in college. So hopefully he just gets comfortable in this scheme and trusts himself out there and goes and makes the plays he can.”

Featured image via Oregon Ducks/CollegePressBox