Tom E. Curran

Age-old question looms over Patriots' promising first-rounder

The Patriots have a lot riding on the third-youngest player from the 2023 draft, writes Tom E. Curran.

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FOXBORO -- What’s realistic for Christian Gonzalez in 2023?

On Tuesday, for the first time, we got a chance to watch the Patriots' first-round pick -- No. 17 overall -- work his craft on a Gillette Stadium practice field.

Holy hell, he looks good.

First off, dimensions.

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Wearing No. 50 (rookies don’t get normal numbers until later in the offseason), what stood out about Gonzalez first was his size. As he milled about close to the line of scrimmage prior to an 11-on-11 rep, he was not out of place height-wise among the defensive linemen.

Obviously, he’s a half-head shorter at 6-foot-1. And leaner at just under 200 pounds. But unlike the rest of the Patriots' vertically-challenged corners who are easily identifiable by their positively Lilliputian dimensions, Gonzalez is a big dude.

There’s also a very evident fluidity to his movements. Graceful. Not clumsy.

"Athletic," said safety Kyle Dugger when asked after practice about his impressions. "He’s very athletic and he learns well."

Both attributes were subtly on display Tuesday. Gonzalez (along with Jonathan Jones and Jack Jones) mixed in with the first defense. Presnap, he seemed to have his responsibilities down during communication, sending hand signals to teammates. Post-snap, what impressed me was the way he would stop when covering comeback and change-of-direction routes. Even though he’s a longer guy, he just sinks and stops on a dime and breaks forward really smoothly. There wasn’t a noticeable throttling down, and then a Fred Flintstone hop-hop-hop gathering before starting forward. He moves like a big cat.

Gonzalez’ hands and ball skills were easily identifiable watching his highlights at Oregon. He’s a snatch-catcher. And he has absurd range. The 9.5-inch hands and 32-inch arms help. So do the reflexes. So does the 4.38 speed.

What’s not to like? Nothing. So then what’s there to be wary of when projecting? Gonzalez’ date of birth.

He is 20. He can’t legally order a beer until the end of the month (June 28). He was the third-youngest player in the 2023 draft. When the season begins on September 10, Gonzalez will be 21 years, two months and 13 days old.

Now, you can find 25-year-olds who act 15. And you can find 20-year-olds more mature than 30-somethings. Look at Gronk. He was 20 when he was drafted in 2010. And look how mature he was. Never mind. Outlier.

The point is, it’s hard to forecast how a kid who was going to his high school prom in 2020 is going to perform, regardless of the physical package.

Derek Stingley Jr., is a comp. Just about the same size (6-foot, 194 pounds) and same age as Gonzalez when drafted (June 28, 2001 birthday), Stingley was the third overall pick last year out of LSU last year taken one slot ahead of Sauce Gardner. He played well in the nine games he was available for in Houston. But a strained hamstring initially described as "mild" ended his season in mid-November.

The rigors of the NFL are different than they were at LSU. The demands are different mentally and physically. At 20 (or 21 when the season started for Stingley) one is quite literally still growing. In a lot of ways.

N’Keal Harry was 21 and four months when the Patriots drafted him in 2019. Isaiah Wynn was 22.5. Mac Jones was 22 and seven months. Sony Michel was 23 and two months. Kyle Dugger was 24 and one month.

Of that group, Dugger presents by far as the most mature and professional. And -- one man’s opinion -- the rest of the list checks out in inverse order of maturity and temperament. I’m not sayin'. I’m just sayin'.

The upshot of all this? Gonzalez is the best prospect the Patriots have drafted in a long time. His development as a shutdown corner is vital to the success of the Patriots' overall defense. How well the defense plays dictates how much the team needs from Jones and the offense. How well the whole setup goes dictates how long it takes Bill Belichick to pass Don Shula.

So, I guess, NFL history rides on the pimply-shoulders of a 20-year-old.

Hyperbolic? Yes. Also, Gonzalez may very well have porcelain skin. The point is, the care-and-feeding of a 20-year-old can be as complicated as it is for a two-year-old.

It all depends on what kind of 20-year-old you have. And until you’re sure, it’s best to proceed presuming immaturity. Or at least a "need for off-field development."

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