Mike ReissESPN staff writer9 minutes of reading
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick thoughts and notes around New England Patriots and the NFL:
1. Gonzo’s Growth: University of Oregon coach Dan Lanning reflected this week on a team meeting last season when he was asked what it was like coaching Patriots first-round pick Christian Gonzalez.
“I read part of a book to our team — ‘Discipline is Destiny’ by Ryan Holiday. That part of the book was about accessibility and the Lou Gehrig-Wally Pipp story,” Lanning told ESPN.com. “I’m done, the team meeting is over, and Christian is the one who comes up after the meeting and asks: ‘Can I borrow that book?’ I gave him a copy to read. That’s the kind of guy he is. He has a growth mindset.”
Lanning’s story is timely for revisiting this week, with Patriots rookies officially scheduled to report to training camp on Friday and the team potentially counting on Gonzalez — the 17th overall pick in the 2023 NFL draft — to quickly grow into a starting cornerback role.
The essence of Lanning’s message that day was the importance of showing up, which Gehrig did on June 2, 1925, when Pipp, the New York Yankees’ first baseman, was pulled from the lineup because of a headache.
Gehrig, then a 21-year-old rookie, was brought off the bench and had three hits and scored a run, leading to him retaining the starting job. He went on a streak 2,130 games played as part of a Hall of Fame career.
Lanning spent just one season coaching Gonzalez at Oregon, but said, “Christian was that guy from the moment he stepped on campus here. He’s got a real competitive nature. I don’t know that he gave up a catch the first 10 -12 jump ball drills when he first got here. When he did that, it pissed him off. Then he was on to the next play. So he has that mindset, ‘OK, what do I have to do to be elite?’
Greatness at the college level isn’t guaranteed to translate to the NFL, which partly explains Patriots coach Bill Belichick assigning temporary jersey numbers to rookies.
Gonzalez has been wearing No. 50, which isn’t an eligible number for cornerbacks to wear when games begin, but it’s Belichick’s way of reminding him and other rookies that they haven’t done anything in the NFL and to focus on the things that matter. (eg football fundamentals over gear, merchandise etc).
Lanning envisions a smooth transition for the 21-year-old Gonzalez into that type of culture.
“He’s one of my favorite players I’ve ever coached – the ultimate professional,” he said. “He has a demeanor that just means business, is a great kid, always looking to get better but also to be a good teammate. He never needs to be the loudest voice in the room, but shows up on game day and the performance speaks for itself.”
Gonzalez’s potential emergence as a starter is one of several notable training camp storylines for the Patriots, who face an opening stretch of the season against the Eagles, Dolphins, Jets and Cowboys that is among the most challenging of any team.
Eight-year veteran Jonathan Jones started 16 games last season at cornerback, while eight-year veteran Jalen Mills opened 2022 starting opposite Jones but was limited to 10 games due to a groin injury and has experimented with a shift to safety this offseason.
Meanwhile, the status of 2022 fourth-rounder Jack Jones (13 games, two starts, 38% playing time) remains in doubt as he faces weapons charges, while 2022 third-rounder Marcus Jones (15 games, four starts, 32 %) playing time) turns out to be an integrated cog, potentially in slot.
At 6-foot-2 and 201 pounds, Gonzalez has a different physical makeup than Jonathan Jones (5-10, 190), Mills (6-0, 191), Jack Jones (5-11, 175) and Marcus Jones (5 -8, 175).
“He’s going to be one of the bigger DBs in the league, and the fact that he can run as well as he can run at that size, I think, is a definite attribute,” Lanning said when he became asked about what he sees from Gonzalez. could transition to the NFL. “He also has good ball skills and ultimately from a mindset the highs are never too high, the lows are never too low.”
One of the tenets of Belichick’s defensive philosophy has been that cornerbacks must be skilled run-force players and willing tacklers. That will be an area to gauge how Gonzalez adjusts to the NFL, as some scouts noted inconsistency in college.
Lanning is confident Gonzalez will rise to the challenge.
“He has a great understanding of his job. If coach Belichick gives him a job, he’s going to be able to do it, and if he knows it’s a priority for the defense, he’s going to make sure it’s something,” Lanning said. “More than anything, Christian will be as hungry as anyone to keep improving. If it’s something he feels he can get better at, I know the coaches there will help identify and he can attack it.
“Every scheme is a little bit different, but I think there are some things that we do here that really translate to the NFL system. I’m sure that’s part of what Coach Belichick saw on his film — he’s going to play a variety of coverages. I think he landed in the perfect spot for him.”
2. Peep, Part II: Lanning’s reference to the Lou Gehrig-Wally Pipp story sets off a reminder of one of NFL movie’s all-time mic moments with Belichick. It was the 2009 preseason, Julian Edelman’s rookie year, and top punt returner Wes Welker was on the sidelines when Edelman returned a punt for a touchdown. That’s when Belichick walked up to Welker and asked him, “You ever heard of Wally Pipp?”
3. Rookie contracts: Gonzalez and second-round pick Keion White have yet to sign their rookie contracts, but it would be a surprise if those aren’t finalized before the Patriots’ first practice. Gonzalez can expect a four-year deal worth around $15 million with a signing bonus in the range of $7.9 million.
Gonzalez and White share the same agents — Reggie Johnson and Tory Dandy — and while the total value of the contract isn’t in doubt because of the NFL’s rookie slotting system, delays are sometimes tied to the timing of payments and/or guaranteed money. White, in particular, is close to the second-round cutoff when teams stop guaranteeing salary in the third year of the deal, which probably explains why the six players drafted immediately ahead of him have yet to sign.
4. Health check: Patriots veterans are scheduled to report to training camp on July 25, but those rehabbing past injuries are expected a few days earlier than that. Starting right guard Mike Onwenu (offseason ankle surgery) and second-year receiver Tyquan Thornton (managing a soft tissue injury from the spring) are among those arriving early, which will be the first opportunity to see if they will open training camp on physicals to execute the list.
5. Tippett on the hall: The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced the 60 seniors, coaches and contributors who have been named semifinalists for the class of 2024which includes former Patriots receiver Stanley Morgan (most yards per reception in NFL history among players with 500+ catches) and owner Robert Kraft (six Super Bowl championships/highly influential in the NFL business).
Patriots great and Pro Football Hall of Famer Andre Tippett (Class of 2008) has strong beliefs about both:
Morgan: “I knew about Stanley and [quarterback Steve] Grogan and how well they played in the late 70s. But I didn’t realize how good a player he was until I got on the field with him [in 1982] and then bond after practice and games. A great, fantastic athlete, and on top of that a fantastic football player. Everyone is compared to someone, but if you look at Stanley’s numbers, there was no one to look up to – everyone else looked up to him. He put in the work, and I don’t think he gets enough credit for that.”
Power: “The work and what he has been able to do as an owner; there are so many things he has provided for the organization and the league. They talk about checking boxes and he’s checked them all. When you compare him to other people, he has been as valuable to the league as any successful owner that is in the Hall of Fame right now. I think he’s due. He deserves it.”
6. Stadium changes: As part of Tuesday’s media tour of the $250 million renovation of Gillette Stadium, a change that may have been overlooked: The Patriots are pairing stadium improvements with free parking for fans who choose to use the lots across the street from the stadium. It’s an unprecedented combination, sparked in part by the idea that improved efficiency getting into the seats (e.g. no stopping to pay) will reduce traffic on often congested Route 1. Fans also have a pre-paid option to park on the stadium side.
7. Kuhn report: Former Patriots Sebastian Vollmer, Markus Kuhn and Patrick Chung visited Germany last week as part of an initiative tied to the team’s Nov. 12 game against the Colts at Deutsche Bank Park in Frankfurt. Kuhn said they arrived Tuesday, went to two fan events (Frankfurt and Berlin), attended a charity fundraiser for a local women’s organization, organized a flag football clinic for about 150 children and, among other things, had raised the eyes of 3 million people waiting in an online line to buy tickets for the Patriots-Colts game (the capacity of the stadium is about 48,000). “It’s absolutely crazy what’s happening in Germany right now football-wise,” said the German-born Kuhn.
8. Roster movement: The Patriots have 88 players on their 90-man roster, and it’s time for the coaching staff to assess where the depth may be thinner than desired to make it through camp. Running back, for example, is a standout spot to possibly add a layer. So some back-end roster moves wouldn’t be a surprise over the next week.
9. Throwbacks: Given the popularity of the Patriots’ throwback uniforms, it’s more a matter of “when” than “if” the team will wear them this season. An announcement about the specific game(s) usually comes right around this time in the calendar.
10. Did you know? The Patriots are one of 18 teams that have never appeared on the training camp version of “Hard Knocks” that selected the Jets for this season. Teams are not eligible to be in the show if they qualified for the playoffs during the past two seasons, meaning that if the Patriots do not make the playoffs in 2023, they would be eligible in 2024.