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Breaking down three Patriots preseason debuts

Three Patriots rookies got their feet wet in the first preseason action of the season.

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The Patriots got their 2023 season rolling on Thursday night against the Texans, their first of three preseason games this summer that will accompany two sets of joint practices to prepare New England for the upcoming season. While the result on the scoreboard indicated a loss, there are plenty of positives to take away from the initial contest of preseason.

Most notable were the debuts of a number of Patriots rookies who all got their feet wet against the Texans, making some of the game's most notable plays.

Here's a breakdown of three of the most notable debuts and what they will mean going forward as the team turns the page to joint practices in Green Bay next week.

Christian Gonzalez

29 defensive snaps (39 percent), 4 special teams snaps (Kickoff)

Three tackles, two targets, two receptions, 20 yards, forced fumble

Gonzalez not only got the start at cornerback but also saw four snaps on the kickoff team as the rookie first-rounder got his first taste of NFL action. Of all the rookies, Gonzalez's collision with receiver Nico Collins on the first play of the game from scrimmage was a "Welcome to the league" moment as Collins lowered his shoulder and delivered a strong hit as he stepped out of bounds.

"We talked about that first tackle that he had on the sideline," said Jalen Mills. "He told me it woke him up a little bit, but he said he needed that. But I think Gonzo, he had a pretty good outing. I really didn't get to see too much of him because they were running the ball a lot, of course. But, with Gonzo, he's the same thing: put him in that bucket with those young guys. This whole rookie class coming in, working hard each and every day, asking questions and striving to get better." 

Gonzalez would allow one more catch in the game, manning up on Steven Sims and trailing him in man coverage, allowing the completion on a crossing route. However, despite getting beat on the play, Gonzalez stuck with the play and punched the ball out. Unfortunately it rolled out of bounds and didn't allow any Patriots a chance to recover it.

"It was good, had a lot of fun to go out there with my teammates and just try to get better each day," said Gonzalez following the game. "And there is so much more that I can learn. Ready to get in tomorrow, watch the film, and get back to work."

Gonzalez has been a fixture on the team's starting defense and that doesn't figure to change. He allowed a couple catches and took a hard hit, but still managed to make a near-game-changing play. Of all the rookies, Thursday might've been the most valuable learning experience for Gonzalez.

Keion White

27 defensive snaps (42 percent)

Three tackles, two QB pressures

White earned wide praise for his debut performance, lining up in a number of different spots and showing good technique, awareness and strength that was surprising for a rookie.

Some of his most notable plays included a shed and tackle on third down of C.J. Stroud to get the stop. He also helped prevent the Texans from recovering a fumble, crashing in unblocked as the ball hit the turf. It allowed Calvin Munson to recover the ball for the team's second takeaway of the game.

"It was a good experience," said White. "Definitely have a lot that I need to learn and take from the game. Obviously I reserve all the rights to comment on it until I watch the film and assess it for myself."

 White looked like he immediately fit right into how the Patriots defense operates. He played all over the front and was a magnet to the ball. With a veteran defensive line, White is adding a needed injection of youth but with the physicality of a veteran.

"Just play physical," said White of his playing philosophy. "I can fix all the rest of the stuff, technique and everything obviously needs to be corrected. Just play a physical and dominant style of the game was my main focus today."

"He's getting better," said Bill Belichick of White. "We'll have to look at the film on the game. Yeah, Keion has improved all through the spring, in training camp here. See how it went tonight. Seemed like it was all right."

It's been hard to know exactly what the Pats have in White only watching practice, but his game debut signaled a player who should fit immediately into a defensive rotation and one capable of making big stops and big plays.

Malik Cunningham

26 offensive snaps (49 percent)

3-of-4, 19 yards passing, 5 carries, 34 yards, touchdown

The Patriots offense was stagnant for much of the contest but received a notable boost when rookie Malik Cunningham entered the game. Cunningham had spent most of his time early in camp as a receiver, but in recent days he's seen rising reps at quarterback and on Thursday night he got the chance to show what he can do at the position he played in college.

"Yeah it was real fun to see him come out there and just ball," said Gonzalez of Cunningham. "It was fun to watch that. Super nice guy, always talking, real high energy. To see him be able to go out and do that was a lot of fun on the sideline for us to see that, I am happy for him."

Cunningham led a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown-scoring drive, showing an ability to both throw and run. Perhaps his best throw of the night fell incomplete, as Cunningham lofted a dime on the move to the end zone that was just out of reach for Tre Nixon. His best run of the night game on his touchdown scamper, where he made a dazzling cut to avoid a first tackler and finished it off in the end zone for the team's only touchdown of the game.

"It feels good," said Cunningham. "I'm a team player, so whatever the coaches need me to do, I'm going to do it for the team. That's what happened, Coach told me to go to quarterback, and we had no touchdowns, so I told the o-line, the whole group, that we were going to go down and score and that's what we did."

"I think Malik's a tough kid," said Bill Belichick. "He showed that at Louisville, and as a receiver, he's different than at quarterback. But, he's had to block, go in and make tough catches in traffic and things like that. No, I think his toughness and competitiveness is good. You saw that in college and we've seen it in the time that he's been here."

"Malik came in and did a phenomenal job, had a really good drive," said the game's starter Bailey Zappe. "Scored the only touchdown of the game. Did really good in both the run game and the pass game. It was really nice to see him do that. Especially his first game in the NFL, to be able to go out there and kind of put the jitters aside and play like he did was really good to see. I think like everybody, I'm sure he had those little nerves, little jitters the first play or so. As the drive went on, you could see he got comfortable with it. To be able to see him score a touchdown and how excited he got, was really good."

Cunningham isn't going to challenge Mac Jones as the starter, but he'll certainly make the preseason a lot more entertaining like he did on Thursday night. He should continue to get those opportunities to shine and perhaps the team can continue to develop him. Regardless, he brings significant scout team value and seems like a talented athlete that could help the team in a number of ways as he continues to learn the NFL game.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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