Patriots rookie Christian Gonzalez has his first major accolade just three games into his NFL career.
On Thursday, Gonzalez was named the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Month for September following three excellent performances for the first-round cornerback against several top wide receivers. Gonzalez is the first Patriots rookie to earn the honor since quarterback Mac Jones in 2021, and the fifth overall, joining Jones (November 2021), DE Chandler Jones (September 2012), LB Jerod Mayo (October 2008), and WR Deion Branch (September 2002).
In the first three weeks of his rookie campaign, Gonzalez has more than held his own against a gauntlet of elite receivers. In matchups against Eagles duo A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, Miami's explosive wideouts, and Jets WR Garrett Wilson, Gonzalez has allowed a stingy ten catches for 102 yards on 74 routes covering those star wideouts. The Pats corner also logged an interception, a sack, and three pass breakups this season, allowing opposing wideouts to get "open" on just 23.1% of their routes against him, per NextGen Stats.
Along with receiving league-wide recognition, Gonzalez has impressed the receivers he's lining up across from every week. During a recent podcast appearance following their Week 2 matchup, Dolphins wideout Tyreek Hill was extremely impressed with Gonzalez.
"I was able to go against the rookie. He's real good," Hill said on the 'It Needed to be Said' podcast. "Very lengthy corner, had some real good technique and speed about him. They have some real good pieces over there in New England, man. So shout out to New England."
Speaking to Patriots.com this week, Gonzalez responded to Hill's glowing review and discussed his mindset moving forward after receiving so much positive momentum early on in his career.
"It's definitely cool to see it," Gonzalez said of Hill's comments. "But, you know, never be satisfied. Just keep going. I'm happy I got the matchup, and I'll see him later in the year. It'll be fun to go against him again."
"I just have to keep my head down and just keep working. Just keep growing and trying to come in each week and do what I do. Listen to the coaches, take the film study, and put it out on the field," Gonzalez continued.
Although some incorrectly took it as a slight in the pre-draft process, head coach Bill Belichick's comparison for the "quiet assassin," as teammates call him, is one that others shared with Patriots.com following the selection in late April. Belichick pointed to a former Patriot great during his weekly radio appearance on WEEI in Boston when asked about Gonzalez.
"Well, one of the best things about Christian, especially at that position, is he's very even-keeled," Belichick said earlier this week. "He's not overly emotional one way or another. He's got a good, calm demeanor. A lot like (Stephon) Gilmore did."
As the 17th overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, it surprised many pundits and league executives that Gonzalez lasted until the Patriots were on the clock in the middle of the first round. The Oregon product was projected by most as a top-ten selection but somehow fell into head coach Bill Belichick's lap and has been a perfect fit in Belichick's defense.
Belichick's defensive system has evolved into one of the NFL's heaviest man coverage and single-high safety defenses, where the outside corners are left to play off inside help while often taking receivers one-on-one downfield. Due to the stress man coverage puts on corners, the defense is at its best when Belichick has a shutdown corner to cover number-one receivers. The intrigue of adding a player with Gonzalez's cover talent at over 6-foot-1 with 4.38-speed and elite explosiveness made this a perfect match. As illustrated by his film, Gonzalez is thriving in Belichick's system.
For example, Gonzalez did an excellent job playing to his safety help on a pass breakup in last Sunday's win over the Jets. With Gonzalez matched up against WR Allen Lazard at the bottom of the screen, the Pats rookie has robber help from safety Kyle Dugger, so he sits on Lazard's outside hip in a trail technique to mirror his vertical release and then stops down when Lazard breaks to smother the catch point to break up the pass.
Gonzalez also shows excellent change of direction and patience to read route breaks. Above, he's matched up at the top of the screen against Jets wideout Garrett Wilson. Wilson tries to run a "whip" route to create separation inside the red zone, but Gonzalez matches it easily.
The 21-year-old cornerback's sole focus is now on this week's matchup with the Dallas Cowboys, but he briefly shared his initial impressions of life in the NFL.
"It's been fun. I'm having fun, enjoying it. It's been my dream to play football at the highest level. Like I said, just going day by day," Gonzalez said. "The weeks do move by really fast. They fly by. But I'm having a lot of fun doing it, though. Just trying to get better. Still learning through it. Only Week 4. Long way to go, but I'm just taking it day by day."
Although winning Rookie of the Month will have everyone buzzing about Gonzalez, there's no rest for the weary for the Patriots cornerback. After contributing to last week's victory in the Meadowlands, the Pats battle the Cowboys in Dallas on Sunday, with another heavyweight matchup for Gonzalez against Cowboys star receiver CeeDee Lamb. The two-time Pro Bowler for the Cowboys is the latest elite receiver that Gonzalez will have to face in the early going. But the Pats rookie is staying the course.
"He's a great receiver, definitely," Gonzalez said of Lamb. "Just treating it like another game. Coming in and doing what we do every week. Studying and then practicing and just taking what we know from the film, going out there and practice it on the field, and just getting ready for Sunday."
It's very early, so just like if Gonzalez's start had gone in a less favorable direction, it's irresponsible to make any grand proclamations about a player three games into their NFL career. However, you also have to acknowledge what we are seeing, and sometimes it's immediately apparent for talented players like Gonzalez that a draft pick will pan out.
As the latest NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month, New England appears to have a new lockdown corner.