FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — The New England Patriots waited patiently with their top pick of the NFL draft, trading back three spots and addressing a hole in their secondary by selecting Oregon cornerback Christian Gonzalez with the 17th pick on Thursday night.
The Patriots entered the night holding the No. 14 selection but swapped first-round picks with Pittsburgh, getting a fourth-round pick (120th overall) from the Steelers.
Gonzalez, who transferred to Oregon after two seasons at Colorado, has a versatile skillset and was effective both in coverage and against the run, notching four interceptions and 50 tackles last season.
He said he is focused on competing immediately, having been inspired watching cornerback Sauce Gardner’s impact for the Jets as a rookie. Gardner was a first-time All-Pro this past season.
“It means a lot to be able to watch somebody come in and make an instant impact. I want to hopefully do the same thing,” Gonzalez said. “I just want to come in and compete and learn. … I’m really just excited for the opportunity to learn from the best.”
Gonzalez was in Kansas City, Missouri, to walk across the stage following his selection, which many prognosticators expected would happen sooner.
Patriots director of player personnel Matt Groh said the team played a hunch that based on how teams were picking around them, they could move back and still be happy with their options.
“There was a feeling that he might still be available,” Groh said. “We thought he was a good player and would have certainly understood if he wasn’t. … You can’t just count on, ‘Well, we know these teams, they’re not going to take a (cornerback) or whatnot.’ It changes so quickly. It’s tough to say, ‘Well, this guy is going to be there.’ I think it really came down to having a comfort level on multiple players.”
Gonzalez acknowledged he was surprised he slipped down the board a bit, but said he was happy to be able represent his Colombian heritage by wearing an all-white custom suit with a Colombian flag stitched inside. His father, Hector, was born in South America and moved to the U.S. when he was 18 to play basketball for UTEP.
“It means the world to me to just be able to put it on for South America,” Gonzalez said. “They don’t really play football over there. So having little kids that know they can do what they want if they set their mind to it, I just wanted them to know that they have somebody to look up to.”
He fills an immediate need for the Patriots, who were looking for a cornerback to pair with Jonathan Jones. He’ll be competing with a pair of second-year players in Jack Jones and Marcus Jones. Veteran Jalen Mills is also in the mix, but he is expected to move back to safety after re-signing in free agency.
Gonzalez described his game as “versatile, fast, long, tall, that can move around.”
“Someone who wants to learn all the nuances of the defense and how they all build together,” he said.
He’ll have at least one familiar face in the locker room, having spent last season at Oregon with new Patriots offensive line coach Adrian Klemm.
New England ran its streak of making at least one trade during the draft to 19 years. During coach Bill Belichick’s tenure, the Patriots have declined to make a draft-day trade only once, in 2004.
They will enter Day 2 of the draft holding 11 remaining picks and are set to pick 15th in the second round (46th overall) and 13th in the third round (76th overall). New England holds at least one pick in every round except for the fifth.
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