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NFL Draft 2023: Resetting the Patriots’ cornerback position with Christian Gonzalez in the mix

New England added the Oregon cornerback in the first round of this year’s draft.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game - Oregon vs Georgia Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New England Patriots entered the NFL Draft with a need at cornerback, and they did not wait long to address it. With the 17th selection in the first round, they added Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez to the mix — giving them one of the most intriguing prospects that the position had to offer this year.

Gonzalez’s arrival as a likely Day 1 starter will have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the group. So with that, let’s reset New England’s cornerback position.

Before doing that, however, a brief word on the two groups they are split into, outside and slot cornerbacks. Several members of the team’s secondary are versatile enough to play both roles, or move to different positions in the defensive backfield. These labels are therefore to be taken with a grain of salt, but should serve as a guideline to better understand where certain players might see most of their snaps in 2023.

Outside cornerbacks

Christian Gonzalez: Gonzalez offers a rare blend of size, speed and instincts and is expected to play a prominent role for the Patriots from the get-go. The 20-year-old will line up primarily on the perimeter in New England’s scheme, and at 6-foot-1 offer ideal size and length to help defend bigger wide receivers. It remains to be seen how quickly he will adapt to New England’s scheme, but it is not unrealistic to project him as a rookie starter.

Jack Jones: Despite ending his 2022 rookie campaign in controversial fashion — he was suspended while on injured reserve — Jones will be back, and possibly take over a starter-level role as well. He did, after all, show plenty of promise in Year 1. Playing 40 percent of defensive snaps, he registered two interceptions and a fumble recovery.

Jalen Mills: Mills was a starter on the outside early in 2022, but hamstring and groin issues limited his availability; the second of these injuries eventually forced him to sit out the final six games of the season. The Patriots and the 29-year-old signed a restructured contract this offseason to keep working together, and it will be interesting to see where he ends up: Mills might be a candidate to move to safety to help replace the retired Devin McCourty, and adding Gonzalez should give the team more flexibility to do that.

Shaun Wade: Entering his third season with the Patriots, Wade appears to be in a make-or-break situation. Despite showing some promise in training camp last year, he eventually ended up playing a marginal role as a backup and emergency option. Now, with Gonzalez aboard, one has to wonder about this long-term outlook.

Quandre Mosely: Veteran journeyman Quandre Mosely joined the Patriots last season, but ended up playing only one defensive snap for them. He projects to be in the same category as Shaun Wade, fighting for a depth or practice squad spot at best.

Slot cornerbacks

Jonathan Jones: The Patriots retained Jones in free agency, and he figures to play a prominent role in the post-Devin McCourty secondary both on and off the field. While he moved from the slot to the perimeter in 2022, the Gonzalez pick might allow him to move back to the inside. We will keep a close eye on his usage, though: with Marcus Jones and Myles Bryant also in the mix, the team might opt to keep him on the outside or possibly even use him as a McCourty-esque presence at the safety spot. His range and experience definitely make him an interesting piece of the puzzle.

Marcus Jones: An All-Pro punt returner as a rookie, the hyper-versatile Jones saw most of his defensive snaps on the outside in 2022. However, due to his size and shiftiness he best projects as a slot cornerback; his ability to play other spots in the lineup appears to be more of a bonus. Either way, it would not be a surprise to see the sophomore rise to starter-caliber player this season — especially in case Jonathan Jones will continue to be used on the perimeter, or see more opportunities at safety.

Myles Bryant: The Patriots retained Bryant as a restricted free agent this offseason, even though doing so does not guarantee him a spot on the roster in 2023. That being said, he too offers a versatile skillset and the team seems to like him. While it is hard to imagine him playing 61 percent of snaps again if the team has all hands on deck, it would not be in the very least surprising if he earned a depth role with slot/safety flexibility.

Rodney Randle Jr.: A former undrafted rookie who arrived in New England via the CFL in January, Randle Jr. is in the Shaun Wade/Quandre Mosely category: he is likely facing an uphill climb to make the team and will therefore likely have to compete for a practice squad spot. If he can show the team enough, he might challenge for a depth role but the odds are against him.

All in all, the Patriots’ cornerback depth and high-end starter potential looks a lot more promising with Christian Gonzalez in the mix. He is a legitimate talent, and also fits in well with what the team is looking for both from a size perspective and in terms of his abilities as a press-man defender.

There are some question to the overall composition of the secondary with Devin McCourty retired. As for the cornerback group, however, it looks a lot better now on paper.