The current state of the Detroit Lions’ cornerback room is in much better shape than it was last year. After adding three starters via free agency in Cameron Sutton, Emmanuel Moseley, and C.J. Gardner Johnson, the secondary is primed for some big improvements, but there is still an opportunity for general manager Brad Holmes to improve the long-term outlook at the position, and we know he’s obsessed with having contingency plans.
By the time the Lions are on the clock with the sixth overall pick—or wherever they end up with their first selection—it’s entirely possible that the best player available will be a cornerback. One of those options is Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez, who to me is the best cornerback prospect in this year’s draft class, and arguably the best fit for this Lions defense.
[Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles which will make arguments for the Lions drafting various first-round talents.]
Gonzalez has elite athleticism and length for the position, which are areas that the Lions have expressed that they covet in a cornerback. At the NFL Combine, Gonzalez put together an extremely impressive performance, and came away with a 9.95 Relative Athletic Score (RAS). His closest athletic comp draws comparisons to Jalen Ramsey.
Christian Gonzalez is a CB prospect in the 2023 draft class. He scored a 9.95 #RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 13 out of 2212 CB from 1987 to 2023. https://t.co/Ir9MLKPHo2 pic.twitter.com/H19VqKkCMs— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) April 14, 2023
There simply aren’t many corners out there built like Gonzalez. His fluid hips and his ability to change directions without losing much speed is truly special. Every move he makes looks effortless, and he does a remarkable job of staying in the hip pocket of receivers and being a complete nuisance in coverage.
Christian Gonzalez is long and fast… but his hips are what ties it all together. As loose/fluid/oily (pick your term) hips as I’ve ever seen studying CBs— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) March 22, 2023
Shows up all the time.
6013 197 4.38
41.5” Vertical, 11’1 Broad
And he turns 21yrs old in June. pic.twitter.com/Ada2mep0Of
On draft day, Gonzalez will still only be 20 years old, which is about a year and a half younger than some other top prospects in this draft, including Devon Witherspoon, Joey Porter Jr., and Deonte Banks. This may seem pretty insignificant, but if you take a look at the average age of draft picks over the past five drafts, guess which teams are near the top that tend to lean toward younger prospects?
Average age of every day 1 and 2 draft pick since 2018 (Veach's first draft) for each team.— Joseph Hefner (@josephjefe) March 30, 2023
Sadly, I don't have data on the exact ages (21.8, 22.2, etc.), just the age number (21, 22, 23 years old), so this isn't as precise as I wanted it to be . https://t.co/Iq1G7Tp5DU pic.twitter.com/CnCTq7JRoT
What he brings to the Lions
Last year, the Lions were near the top of the league in man-coverage usage, and they loved to put their corners up at the line of scrimmage and press. With the Lions putting a high priority on the Cameron Sutton signing—a player that played at a very high level in Pittsburgh’s man-heavy scheme—I think that shows that they are likely to stick to a similar scheme philosophy in 2023.
Some more back shoulder play by Christian Gonzalez pic.twitter.com/umviQNtXvC— CROCKPOT (@Eric_Crocker) April 18, 2023
Christian Gonzalez against passes of 20 or more air yards in 2022: Two catches allowed on nine targets for 69 yards (nice), no touchdowns, and three interceptions. Metrics don't tell you everything, but if you're picking off more deep passes than you're allowing, that's good. pic.twitter.com/ukZHdV3Ll2— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) March 31, 2023
Gonzalez is a perfect fit for what the Lions are looking to do defensively, and his traits suggest that he can turn into an elite man-cover corner. He’s very physical at the line of scrimmage and makes it tough for quarterbacks to challenge him vertically or on the back shoulder. On passes that were 20 or more air yards last year, Gonzalez had more interceptions (three) than he gave up completions (two).
In zone coverage, Gonzalez is instinctive, and extremely quick close the gaps to make a play on the ball. After transferring to Oregon for the 2022 season, Gonzalez had an uptick in production and intercepted four passes with 11 pass deflections.
The Lions love versatility, and Gonzalez has shown that he can move inside and play slot corner at a high level if needed. He played around 20 percent of his snaps in the slot in 2022 for Oregon.
There seems to be this misconception surrounding Gonzalez that he is soft or not “gritty” enough for a Dan Campbell squad. I can’t stress enough how much I disagree with that assessment.
He may not deliver the bone-breaking hits that Devon Witherspoon does, but Gonzalez is a very willing tackler, and he has slowly blossomed into one of the better tackling defensive backs in this class. In 2022, he missed only three tackles on the season via Pro Football Focus. He didn’t rack up a ton of tackles behind the line of scrimmage, but his yards per tackle was only 6.7 (plays averaged for 6.7 yards when Gonzalez made the tackle), which was better than all of his peers projected to go in the first couple rounds. Christian Gonzalez is a dawg, not a puppy.
Areas to improve
Gonzalez may be the best all-around cornerback in this draft, but he is still an unfinished product. To me, his biggest weakness currently is his instincts and ball skills with his back to the football. He has made some plays on the ball in press-man coverage, but I’d like to see him do it more consistently. His footwork is also a work in progress. You might miss it sometimes with how well he is able to recover and stay glued to his receivers, but there are some technique and balance issues that he can clean up. These are all issues that can be coached up, and nothing to be overly concerned about.
How he helps the Lions in 2023 and beyond
Should the Lions select Christian Gonzalez on Thursday, they would be getting my top-ranked cornerback in this year’s class and would be grabbing someone that can develop into a CB1 and become a lockdown corner for years to come. In Year 1, I’d expect Gonzalez to challenge for a starting spot opposite of Sutton, depending on how Moseley’s health is progressing and how quickly he can acclimate to the speed of the NFL. Gonzalez also has some experience as a slot and can fill in anywhere if injuries start to pile up.
For the long term, I’d expect Gonzalez to turn into the Lions’ No. 1 corner that can match up against the top receivers. He has All-Pro potential. With this pick, the Lions could turn the secondary from a bottom feeder in 2022 to one of the best units in the NFL in 2023.