After draft-day slide, NFL DROM Christian Gonzalez shining for Patriots

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

1. Steal at 17: Cornerback Christian Gonzalez earning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month honors for September led ESPN senior draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. to reflect on what had been one of his biggest surprises of the 2023 draft.

“All of the projections I did had him going in the top 10. He was right there as the best corner or the second-best corner -- he had the same grade for me as Devon Witherspoon did. On my final ‘Big Board,’ it was Witherspoon at [No.] 8 and Gonzalez at 9,” Kiper said.

“So Witherspoon goes really early to Seattle [at No. 5] and there should not have been a gap. You figure when you have guys that are pretty much co-1s at the position -- especially a corner [like Gonzalez] who has length, had a really good year and played well at two schools -- they would go with right near each other.”

Yet, as the draft unfolded and Kiper was on ESPN’s live broadcast, he was shocked to see Gonzalez keep falling. He had mocked him to the Raiders at No. 7, but then came the first curveball he didn’t see coming, as they selected Texas Tech pass-rusher Tyree Wilson instead.

“When you think of all the first-round picks, and how they were rated, he was the only one who really dropped,” Kiper said. “I don’t know why he did and it doesn’t really matter. There were no red flags. But when that happens, you go, ‘Why was there such a gap?’”

The Patriots -- who visit the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox) -- also contributed to that gap.

They could have picked Gonzalez at their original selection at No. 14 but traded down to 17 and still landed him. It’s possible that teams had questions about Gonzalez’s physicality and tackling, perhaps putting additional stock in a disappointing performance against Georgia in Oregon's 2022 opener, but Kiper didn’t believe that was enough to justify him dropping that far.

“That was one concern, but it was something he developed [in college]. He got better. I get it, you have to have corners that can tackle, but he did it well enough. It wasn’t like he was a liability,” he said.

“In the end, let’s face it, corners get paid to cover. You have to match up, lock down. You have to have length like he has and be able to go one-on-one with these guys. Have ball skills, be able to turn and not be handsy and grabby -- which he wasn’t. So the coverage skills are what you scrutinize a lot more.”

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Gonzalez has matched up against the Eagles’ A.J. Brown, Dolphins’ Tyreek Hill and Jets’ Garrett Wilson in the Patriots’ 1-2 start. He has 16 tackles, three passes defended, one interception and one sack -- and he has played all but one snap (a goal-line play).

Hill praised him, saying on his podcast: “He’s real good. Very lengthy corner, had some real good technique and speed about him.”

Meanwhile, Patriots outside linebacker Matthew Judon said Gonzalez’s skill and poise is “kind of unseen” for a young player.

Kiper remembers thinking the Patriots came away with a steal with Gonzalez at 17, and while there’s still a long way to go, the early returns have reinforced that thought.

“That was one where we were sitting there on draft day [and it doesn’t add up]. When you’re on the draft, you can’t say every pick ‘It has to be Gonzalez!’ But why someone didn’t grab him before 17, I don’t know. I was splitting hairs between Witherspoon and Gonzalez and there shouldn’t be a gap of 12 picks there.”

2. Bourne on ‘Boys: As receiver Kendrick Bourne was surrounded by a media scrum Friday, fellow receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster played the role of reporter by grabbing a microphone and asking what the game plan against the Cowboys looked like.

Bourne’s answer: “It looks great. They played a lot of man [coverage] last game against Arizona and they kind of struggled a little bit. It was some good film for us to learn, so I think we can expose them a little bit more.”

A candid response, sparked in part by the connection between two locker mates.

3. Kraft and Jones: Running back Ezekiel Elliott, who is in his first season with the Patriots after spending his first seven with the Cowboys, sees a connection between owners Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones.

“I think they’re both ownerships that care about their players," Elliott said. "We see Mr. Kraft around. [I] used to see Mr. Jones around. That’s a similarity -- they talk to every guy in the locker room, making everyone feel like they matter.”

Something else that links Kraft and Jones: the value of their teams. According to Forbes, the Cowboys ($9 billion) and Patriots ($7 billion) are the two most valuable franchises.

4. Zeke the Patriot: Walk into the Patriots’ players cafeteria and the 28-year-old Elliott is just as likely to be sitting with his fellow running backs and the team’s linebackers, according to teammate Mack Wilson Sr. Elliott’s get-to-know-you approach in his first year as a Patriot has made an impression on Wilson, who said: “I see him with everybody. He’s very easy to talk to and he’ll come sit and chop it up with you. That just tells me what type of person he is; very down to earth.”

5. IR returns: Receiver Tyquan Thornton (shoulder), cornerback Jack Jones (hamstring) and offensive lineman Riley Reiff (knee) are eligible to return from injured reserve after Sunday’s game, although it would be a surprise if all three are cleared to do so. For Jones, some around the team were targeting midseason as a more likely timetable, while Thornton’s presence in the locker room Friday could be viewed as a sign that he’s on the cusp.

6. Rain men: Belichick, who needs one more regular-season win to hit 300 for his career, had the team practice in the pouring rain Friday despite Sunday’s game at Dallas being played in a retractable roof stadium. It was a reminder of one staple of his coaching philosophy: Other than high winds and lightning, he seldom brings the team inside, believing it builds mental toughness to practice in the elements while also helping prepare players for what they are likely to face over the course of a season.

7. Mafi’s mindset: Patriots 2023 fifth-round pick Atonio Mafi projects to start at left guard in place of injured Cole Strange (knee), which highlights one of Sunday’s key matchups. Per ESPN Analytics/NFL Next Gen Stats, the Cowboys rank first in the NFL in pass rush win rate, while New England ranks 30th in pass block win rate.

Mafi, of UCLA, has been a quick study since switching from the defensive line to offensive line in 2020 and said it comes back to his approach of trying to do right by others. A personal note on Mafi: His first name is the Tongan version of Antonio/Anthony.

“No ‘n’ after the ‘A’. It’s my great grandpa’s name and it got passed down to me,” he explained. “It’s definitely something I hold a lot of pride in. My last name as well -- family is very big for us in the Tongan/Polynesian culture.”

8. Roberts’ role: Second-year defensive tackle Sam Roberts’ roster spot might have seemed in jeopardy after the Patriots’ second preseason game -- when he was penalized for a late hit on Packers quarterback Jordan Love and also had an illegal-use-of-hands penalty -- but he rebounded in the preseason finale to solidify his spot.

That is timely to revisit after the 6-foot-5, 300-pound Roberts (of Division II Northwestern Missouri State) earned his first career start last week and will likely be called on to do more against the Cowboys with Davon Godchaux (ankle) questionable and Daniel Ekuale (torn biceps) sidelined.

“Very strong and actually very fast. He does a great job using his hands and getting off blocks,” fellow defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. said. “He finally got his shot to play a lot of snaps [18] this last game and he showed us what he can do.”

9. Did you know?, Part I: The Cowboys have won nine straight home games, which is the longest active streak in the NFL and their longest home winning streak since 1991-92.

10. Did you know?, Part II: If the Patriots are held to 20 points or fewer against the Cowboys, it would mark the fourth straight game they didn’t score more than 20 points. That would match the longest streak in Belichick’s 24-year coaching tenure, with the last time coming in 2002.