FOXBORO — The moment the Patriots drafted Christian Gonzalez in the first round last April, he filled an obvious need.
Gonzalez projected as a starting cornerback for a team in desperate need of size and talent at the position, especially one with a long list of dangerous No. 1 receivers on its schedule. That need became more dire over the weekend when the Pats placed second-year corner Jack Jones on injured reserve.
With Jones out, there was no question Gonzalez would start Week 1 against the Eagles and have to corral one of the most dangerous receiver duos in the NFL: A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith.
Four quarters later, check, and check.
Gonzalez posted seven tackles, a pass breakup and one sack in his NFL debut Sunday. He allowed multiple catches to Brown and Smith, but denied the most critical: a fourth-and-2 throw with less than two minutes remaining that gave the Patriots another drive to potentially win the game. Gonzalez jumped Smith’s in-breaking route and nearly intercepted it.
The rookie thoroughly impressed his teammates post-game, who also insisted his performance didn’t surprise them.
“We knew what kind of guy we were getting,” safety Jabrill Peppers said. “We’d seen it in OTAs, training camp. He’s a smart kid, ready to compete. And we need him to keep playing at that level.”
Pats linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley said Gonzalez’s game preparation for the Eagles help set him apart.
“When he was in the game, just having attention to detail and kind of knowing what we’re trying to get done and what Philly wants to do, just doing well in those situations,” Bentley said. “I thought he did a solid job today.”
Post-game, Gonzalez said it meant a lot to him to have earned the trust of his teammates and coaches. As the Patriots rotated players at every position except quarterback and offensive line, he was as close to a mainstay as there was on defense. Gonzalez played more snaps than virtually all of his teammates and overcame what he described as a major difference from his experience in the preseason.
“Speed of the game, tempo of the game,” he said. “Atmosphere, the atmosphere out there was great. Came out, showed out, so it was real fun.”
Next week, Gonzalez will be charged with limiting another explosive duo in Miami’s Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. They combined for almost 300 receiving yards and two touchdowns during the Dolphins’ opener at Los Angeles.
No rest for the rookie.