Patriots top pick Christian Gonzalez eyes growth as rookies report

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. Gonzo’s growth: University of Oregon coach Dan Lanning reflected this week on a team meeting last season when asked what it was like to coach Patriots first-round pick Christian Gonzalez.

“I was reading part of a book to our team — ‘Discipline is Destiny’ by Ryan Holiday. This part of the book was about availability and the Lou Gehrig-Wally Pipp story,” Lanning told “I finish, the team meeting is over, and Christian is the guy that comes up after the meeting and asks, ‘Can I borrow that book?’ I gave him a copy to read. That’s the kind of guy he is. He has a growth mindset.”

Lanning’s story is timely to revisit this week, with Patriots rookies officially scheduled to report for training camp on Friday and the team potentially relying on Gonzalez — the No. 17 overall pick of the 2023 NFL draft — to grow quickly into a starting cornerback role.

The essence of Lanning’s message that day was the importance of showing up, which Gehrig did on June 2, 1925, when Pipp, the New York Yankees’ first baseman, was pulled from the lineup because of a headache.

Gehrig, then a 21-year-old rookie, was elevated from the bench and had three hits and scored a run, which led to him keeping the starting job. He went on a streak of 2,130 games played as part of a Hall of Fame career.

Lanning spent just one season coaching Gonzalez at Oregon but said: “Christian was that guy from the moment he stepped on campus here. He has a real competitive nature. I don’t know that he gave up a catch the first 10-12 practices of spring ball when he first got here. When he did, it pissed him off. Then he was on to the next play. So he has that mindset, ‘OK, what do I need to do to be elite?’”

Greatness at the college level isn’t guaranteed to translate to the NFL, which partially explains Patriots coach Bill Belichick assigning temporary jersey numbers to rookies.

Gonzalez has been wearing No. 50, which is not an eligible number for cornerbacks to don once games begin, but it is Belichick’s way of reminding him and other rookies they haven’t done anything in the NFL and to focus on the things that matter (e.g., football fundamentals over gear, merchandise, etc.).

Lanning envisions a smooth transition for the 21-year-old Gonzalez into that type of culture.

“He’s one of my favorite players I’ve ever coached — the ultimate professional,” he said. “He has a demeanor that just means business, is a great kid, is always looking to improve, but also looking to be a great teammate. He never has to be the loudest voice in the room but shows up on game day and the performance speaks for itself.”

Gonzalez’s potential emergence as a starter is one of several notable training-camp storylines for the Patriots, who face an opening stretch of the season against the Eagles, Dolphins, Jets and Cowboys that ranks among the most challenging of any team.

Eight-year veteran Jonathan Jones started 16 games last season at cornerback, while fellow eight-year veteran Jalen Mills opened 2022 starting opposite Jones but was limited to 10 games because of a groin injury and has experimented with a move to safety this offseason.

Meanwhile, the status of 2022 fourth-round pick Jack Jones (13 games, two starts, 38% playing time) remains in question as he faces gun charges, while 2022 third-round pick Marcus Jones (15 games, four starts, 32% playing time) figures to be an integral cog, potentially in the slot.

At 6-foot-2 and 201 pounds, Gonzalez has a different physical makeup than Jonathan Jones (5-10, 190), Mills (6-0, 191), Jack Jones (5-11, 175) and Marcus Jones (5-8, 175).

“He is going to be one of the bigger DBs in the league, and the fact he can run as well as he can run at that size, I think, is a clear trait,” Lanning said when asked what he sees from Gonzalez that could transfer to the NFL. “He also has great ball skills, and ultimately from a mindset standpoint, the highs are never too high, the lows are never too low.”

One of the tenets of Belichick’s defensive philosophy has been that cornerbacks must be capable run-force players and willing tacklers. That will be an area to gauge how Gonzalez acclimates to the NFL, as some scouts noted inconsistency in college.

Lanning has confidence Gonzalez will rise to the challenge.

“He has a great understanding of his job. If Coach Belichick gives him a job, he’s going to be able to execute it, and if he knows it’s a priority for the defense, he’s going to make sure it’s something,” Lanning said. “More than anything, Christian is going to be as hungry as anyone to continue to improve. If that’s something he feels like he can be better at, I know the coaches there will help identify and he can go attack that.

“Every scheme is a little bit different, but I do think there are some things we do here that really translate to the NFL system. I’m sure that’s part of what Coach Belichick saw on his film — he’s going to play a variety of coverages. … I think he landed in the perfect place for him.”

2. Pipp, Part II: Lanning’s reference to the Lou Gehrig-Wally Pipp story sparks a reminder of one of the all-time NFL Films mic’d up moments with Belichick. It was the 2009 preseason, Julian Edelman’s rookie year, and top punt returner Wes Welker was on the sideline as Edelman returned a punt for a touchdown. That’s when Belichick walked up to Welker and asked him, “You ever hear of Wally Pipp?”

3. Rookie contracts: Gonzalez and second-round pick Keion White have yet to sign their rookie contracts, but it would be a surprise if those aren’t finalized before the Patriots’ first practice. Gonzalez can expect a four-year deal worth about $15 million, with a signing bonus in the range of $7.9 million.

Gonzalez and White share the same agents — Reggie Johnson and Tory Dandy — and while the total value of the contract isn’t in question because of the NFL’s rookie slotting system, delays are sometimes tied to timing of payments and/or guaranteed money. White, in particular, is close to the cutoff point in the second round when teams stop guaranteeing salary in the third year of the deal, which probably explains why the six players drafted immediately ahead of him have yet to sign.

4. Health check: Patriots veterans are scheduled to report to training camp July 25, but those rehabbing previous injuries are expected in a few days earlier than that. Starting right guard Mike Onwenu (offseason ankle surgery) and second-year receiver Tyquan Thornton (managing a soft-tissue injury from the spring) are among those arriving early, which will be the first opportunity to see if they will open training camp on the physically unable to perform list.

5. Tippett on the Hall: The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced the 60 seniors, coaches and contributors who have been named semifinalists for the class of 2024, which incudes former Patriots receiver Stanley Morgan (most yards per reception in NFL history among players with more than 500 catches) and owner Robert Kraft (six Super Bowl championships/highly influential in NFL business).

Patriots great and Pro Football Hall of Famer Andre Tippett (class of 2008) has strong conviction on both:

  • Morgan: “I knew of Stanley and [quarterback Steve] Grogan and how well they played in the late ’70s. But I didn’t realize how good of a player he was until I got on the field with him [in 1982] and then watching tape after practices and games. A great, great athlete, and on top of that a great football player. Everybody gets compared to somebody, but you look at Stanley’s numbers, there wasn’t anyone he had to look up to — everyone else was looking up to him. He put in the body of work and I don’t think he gets enough credit for that.”
  • Kraft: “The body of work, and what he’s been able to do as owner; there’s so many things he’s provided for the organization and league. They talk about checking boxes, and he’s checked them all. When you compare him to other people, he’s been as valuable to the league as any successful owner that is in the Hall of Fame right now. I think he’s due. He deserves it.”

6. Stadium changes: As part of Tuesday’s media tour of the $250 million Gillette Stadium renovation, one change that might have been overlooked: The Patriots are pairing the stadium improvements with free parking for fans who choose to use the lots across the street from the stadium. That’s an unprecedented combination sparked, in part, by the idea that improved efficiency getting into the lots (e.g., no one stopping to pay) will reduce traffic on often-congested Route 1. Fans also have a prepaid option to park on the stadium side.

7. Kuhn report: Former Patriots Sebastian Vollmer, Markus Kuhn and Patrick Chung visited Germany last week as part of an initiative tied to the team’s Nov. 12 game against the Colts at Deutsche Bank Park in Frankfurt. Kuhn said they arrived on Tuesday, went to two fan events (Frankfurt and Berlin), took part in a charity fundraiser for a local women’s organization, organized a flag football clinic for about 150 kids and, among other things, had their eyes opened as 3 million people were waiting in an online queue to purchase tickets to the Patriots-Colts game (capacity in the stadium is about 48,000). “It’s absolutely insane what’s happening in Germany right now football-wise,” said the German-born Kuhn.

8. Roster movement: The Patriots have 88 players on their 90-man roster, and this is the time for the coaching staff to assess where depth might be thinner than desired to make it through camp. Running back, for example, is one spot that stands out to possibly add a layer. So some back-end roster movement wouldn’t be a surprise over the next week.

9. Throwbacks: Given the popularity of the Patriots’ throwback uniforms, it’s more a matter of “when” than “if” the team will wear them this season. An announcement on the specific game(s) usually comes right around this time on the calendar.

10. Did you know? The Patriots are one of 18 teams to have never appeared on the training camp version of “Hard Knocks,” which selected the Jets for this season. Teams are not eligible to be on the show if they qualified for the playoffs over the past two seasons, which means if the Patriots don’t make the playoffs in 2023, they would be eligible in 2024.

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