FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Gonzo’s approach: Players are ultimately judged by their production on the field, and Patriots first-round pick Christian Gonzalez is off to a strong start. The former University of Oregon cornerback played every snap in the Patriots’ season-opening loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, totaling seven tackles, one sack and one pass defended.
What stands out to teammates behind the scenes is how Gonzalez doesn’t fit the stereotype of an outspoken potential shutdown corner or highly touted draft pick.
“He’s a quiet guy. I like to call him a little ‘silent assassin’,” veteran safety Adrian Phillips said. “He’s going to go out there and lock down whoever is lined up in front of him, but outside of the game, he’s going to kind of be chill. He’s more observant than anything. It’s like he’s always processing what’s going on.”
In some ways, it reminds Phillips of former Patriot Stephon Gilmore (2017-20), who spoke so softly that those around him often had to lean in to hear what he was saying.
“I don’t want to give him the Steph tag -- I know Steph is way farther along -- but I definitely do see some similarities between them,” Phillips said. “You can tell if a corner is going to be good by the way they practice, if they let receivers catch any balls -- he’s not going to let you catch any balls.”
That approach will be put to the test Sunday night when the Patriots host the Dolphins (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC). Led by quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, the Dolphins totaled 536 yards in their season-opening win over the Los Angeles Chargers, the most by any team in a Week 1 game since the Baltimore Ravens in 2019.
On Friday, reporters gathered around the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Gonzalez after practice, and true to his personality the answers were brief and businesslike.
“That’s kind of who I’ve always been,” he said in a quiet moment after the scrum. “I don’t feel the need to express what I can do with my words. It comes from being humble, a good family background. My parents taught me well -- ‘Just let your game play and actions speak.’ I get a little more juice on game days, but that’s kind of who I am.”
That fits well with the Patriots, as one of the themes of Bill Belichick’s 24-year coaching tenure is that rookies should be heard less and be like a sponge in learning from veterans.
“Sometimes rookies come in and feel like they know everything, especially when they are high picks. But I see a guy who takes coaching, and if he feels like talking, he’ll ask you a question,” Phillips said. “When we get on the field, you can tell he’s not scared of work. I think that’s what makes him so good.”
Added safety Jabrill Peppers: “He came in young [20 when drafted], but the maturity was there, and you could tell he was coached right – fundamentally with a great understanding of schemes and different techniques. But it’s still an adjustment period to play NFL ball. I think he learned a lot in the preseason and came out in the opener and played his ass off.”
Fourth-year defensive back Myles Bryant compares Gonzalez’s soft-spoken personality to a few Patriots who came before him.
“A few of the guys I’ve been around -- Gilmore, J.C. [Jackson] -- they’ve kind of been quiet guys, but they go out and play their game,” he said.
“When people think of the corner position, they think of guys talking trash and being loud and real expressive, but the corners I’ve been with here are kind of like Navy SEALs -- they go in, get the job done and don’t say a word about it. I think he kind of fits that mold.”
2. JuJu’s juice: Perhaps the most surprising storyline from the Patriots’ season opener was that veteran receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster wasn’t on the field in crunch time as part of the two-minute offense. Overall, he played 43 of 80 snaps -- a bottom-line revelation that despite signing a three-year, $25 million contract, he isn’t currently viewed as an every-package player. For Week 1, at least, that was receiver Kendrick Bourne (73 of 80 snaps), with sixth-round pick Kayshon Boutte (55) also playing more than Smith-Schuster (4 catches, 33 yards). My read: The Patriots view Smith-Schuster as primarily an inside receiver, and with Hunter Henry, Mike Gesicki, Rhamondre Stevenson, Kendrick Bourne and Demario “Pop” Douglas also at their best working that area, it is a bit of a logjam compared to the outside, where there is room to elevate speedster Jalen Reagor from the practice squad (as insurance and/or a possible complement to DeVante Parker) for Sunday night’s game.
3. Patriots' streak: The last time the Patriots opened a season 0-2 was 2001, which is the longest active streak in the NFL (Packers in 2006, Cowboys in 2010, Rams in 2011). An 0-2 start has traditionally meant lower odds for a playoff berth, although the implementation of the 17-game regular-season schedule in 2021 has created a bit more margin for error, as the Bengals showed in 2022, starting 0-2 before making it to the AFC Championship Game. Nonetheless, consider this: Since 1990, only 31 of 270 teams that began a season 0-2 qualified for the postseason.
4. DMac with Judon: Devin McCourty was back at Gillette Stadium last week for a 1-on-1 interview with Patriots outside linebacker Matthew Judon, which is scheduled to air on NBC’s “Football Night in America.” It was two former teammates casually talking football, with one of my takeaways being Judon’s view of how Belichick helped him become a “star player” by growing his game after five seasons in Baltimore, and the importance of physicality against Miami this week.
5. They said it: “It puts playmakers in position to be successful regardless of skill set -- what they can do, what they can’t do. Then it puts a lot on the players, too, where you have to be smart enough to be able to move around and play different positions. If you’re willing to put the time in, study and understand your role and understand all the roles of everybody else on the field, it pays dividends. It’s a great system.” -- Patriots tight end Mike Gesicki on what appealed to him in signing with the Patriots, where he’s quickly connected with Mac Jones after falling out of favor with the Dolphins.
6. New kickoff rule: Patriots special teams coordinator Cam Achord was waiting until further into the regular season to gauge the impact of the NFL’s new rule allowing fair catches on kickoffs, noting that most teams don’t tip their hand in the preseason. The results after Week 1: One fair catch across the league, by the Rams.
In total, there were 155 kickoffs, with 121 touchbacks, 32 returns, one downed (on onside kick) and the lone fair catch. The touchback rate was the highest single-season rate since at least 2000, according to ESPN Stats & Information. As for the Patriots, Ty Montgomery II’s 43-yard kickoff return was the longest in the league in the opening week.
7. Wynn’s fit: After five years in New England defined by a run of injuries, offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn’s breakthrough as the Dolphins’ starting left guard was aided, in part, someone else's injury. When Miami signed Wynn to a one-year, $2.3 million deal this offseason, the thinking was to let him compete with returning starter Liam Eichenberg for the top job. Then when Eichenberg missed the past two-plus weeks of training camp (ribs), it opened the door for Wynn. “His frame is probably a little more of a guard frame,” Belichick said. “It’s the same player that we’ve seen -- strong and athletic.”
8. New homes: Checking in with some notable former Patriots making their debuts with new teams, Titans kicker Nick Folk was 5-for-5 on field goals -- hitting from 50, 27, 31, 45 and 29 -- inside the Caesars Superdome … Raiders receiver Jakobi Meyers totaled 9 receptions for 81 yards and two TDs … Bills running back Damien Harris played nine offensive snaps (1 carry for 3 yards; 2 catches for 16 yards) and 13 on special teams … Browns running back Pierre Strong Jr. played no offensive snaps and 13 on special teams (1 assisted tackle).
9. Did you know, Part I: Tagovailoa, the Dolphins' quarterback, is 4-0 all-time against Belichick, which puts him in rare company, as there are only three quarterbacks who are 5-0 or better against a Super Bowl-winning coach -- Russell Wilson (6-0 vs. Doug Pederson), Peyton Manning (6-0 vs. Tom Coughlin), and Chris Chandler (5-0 against Mike Ditka).
10. Did you know, Part II: If Tagovailoa records his fifth consecutive win over the Patriots, it would tie Neil O’Donnell for the longest win streak by a starting quarterback vs. Belichick in his head-coaching career.