Through three weeks, Christian Gonzalez keeps passing tests
For most of Sunday’s New England Patriots 15-10 win over the New York Jets, rookie Patriots cornerback Christian Gonzalez was assigned to cover Jets receiver Garrett Wilson. Wilson is the reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, put up 1,103 receiving yards last year, and is widely viewed as one of the best young receivers in the league.
Despite all of that, there’s an argument to be made he’s the easiest test Gonzalez has faced so far in his first NFL season.
Now, easiest doesn’t mean easy. Wilson is a highly-talented receiver. But Gonzalez has really been thrown in the deep end in his first three games as a pro.
In his NFL debut, Gonzalez was mainly tasked with covering All-Pro Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver A.J. Brown. That was followed by a matchup against Tyreek Hill of the Miami Dolphins, who is widely considered to be the best receiver in the league.
So far, Gonzalez has risen to each of those challenges. In the opener, he covered Brown on 19 routes. In that time he allowed four catches for 47 yards. Certainly not a true lockdown performance, but definitely strong for his first career game. Gonzalez also covered 2021 10th overall pick DeVonta Smith in that game, allowing two catches on 11 routes, with a pass breakup.
Against the Dolphins, Gonzalez took his game to another level. With Jonathan Jones – the Patriots’ typical answer to Hill – out with an ankle injury, the majority of his coverage responsibilities fell on the rookie. Gonzalez rose to the occasion, blanking Hill on 17 coverage routes. Hill was only targeted twice when Gonzalez was in coverage – one of which resulted in his first career interception.
That performance earned Gonzalez some recognition on Hill’s podcast following the game. “I was able to go against the rookie, he’s real good,” Hill said. “Very lengthy corner, had some real good technique and speed about him.”
Now on to Sunday. Gonzalez covered Wilson play-to-play more than any receiver to this point. In 23 routes run he allowed just three catches for 18 yards. Away from the ball, Gonzalez stuck with Wilson even through more complicated routes in key situations.
(All coverage stats above via Evan Lazar of Patriots.com.)
Through two weeks, Gonzalez was the NFL’s highest-graded rookie according to PFF, and the third highest-graded cornerback in the league overall. Based on what he did on Sunday, his grade will likely go up once the numbers are updated to include Week 3.
Gonzalez’s performance isn’t going unnoticed inside the building either. Discussing Gonzalez on Monday morning on WEEI, Bill Belichick not only praised his approach but gave a rare and gaudy comparison.
“One of the best things about Christian, especially at that position, is he’s very even-keeled. He’s not overly emotional one way or another,” Belichick explained. “He’s got a good, calm demeanor. A lot like [Stephon] Gilmore did.”
The Gilmore comp is a notable one. While Belichick is just talking about the approach Gilmore – the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year – brought to the game, the hope should be the similarities don’t end there.
In the Patriots’ defensive system, boundary cornerback is the most important position on the field. Belichick’s defenses are always at their best when they have an elite lockdown cornerback on the outside, from Ty Law to Aqib Talib to Darrelle Revis to Gilmore.
Having drafted him 17th overall, it stands to reason the Patriots’ long-term plan for Gonzalez is to have him be the next player on that list. It’s still very early, but the early signs are he could be the kind of player who could handle that kind of role.