The Pats hope that Christian Gonzalez, posing with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, can became an impact defensive back after picking him 17th overall. Steve Luciano/Associated Press

Young talented cornerbacks have the ability to make an instant impact in the NFL.

Sauce Gardener did it last season after he was selected fourth overall, earning first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors as a rookie for the New York Jets. So did Tariq Woolen, a fifth-round pick, who earned Pro Bowl honors as a rookie for the Seattle Seahawks. Gardner led the NFL with 20 passes defended while Woolen tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions.

While playing his final season at the University of Oregon, Christian Gonzalez watched Gardner and Woolen from afar. The success for those rookies gave him confidence as he closed out his college career as a consensus first-round pick.

Gonzalez hopes to have a similar impact after being drafted by the Patriots in the first round on Thursday.

“It means a lot to be able to watch somebody come in and just make an instant impact. I want to hopefully do the same thing,” Gonzalez said. “I just want to come in and compete and learn. You can’t learn from anyone better (than Patriots Coach Bill Belichick). I’m just excited for the opportunity to learn from the best.”

Belichick is no stranger to drafting defensive backs. Since 2000, the Patriots coach has selected 37 of them. Gonzalez is the third defensive back drafted by Belichick in the first round, joining Devin McCourty and Brandon Meriweather. Both players turned out well with McCourty bursting on the scene as an All-Pro rookie cornerback before transitioning to safety, where he also earned All-Pro honors. Meriweather earned Pro Bowl honors twice in New England.


That being said, Belichick’s history of drafting and developing cornerbacks isn’t great. And it’s not that the Patriots have lacked No. 1 cornerbacks (they haven’t), it’s that most cornerbacks drafted early by New England haven’t panned out.

That’s where Gonzalez comes in. At 6-foot-2 with outstanding athleticism, this 20-year-old profiles as budding No. 1 cornerback. If he pans out, he will be the first drafted and developed No. 1 cornerback under Belichick since Asante Samuel in 2003. (Belichick has developed two undrafted cornerbacks turned Pro Bowlers in Malcolm Butler and J.C. Jackson.)

For the Patriots, having a shutdown cornerback is everything in Belichick’s defense. Those first three Super Bowls had Hall-of-Famer Ty Law in the secondary. When he left, Samuel briefly took over. When he left, however, there was a period where the Patriots didn’t have a true No. 1 cornerback, but it wasn’t from the lack of trying.

In 2008, the Patriots drafted cornerbacks Terrence Wheatley (second round) and Jonathan Wilhite (fourth round). In 2009, the team selected Darius Butler in the second round. In 2010, it was McCourty, who briefly filled the role, but struggled in Year 2 before the position switch. In 2011, the Patriots drafted Ras-I Dowling with the first pick in the second round.

That’s when Belichick traded for Aqib Talib. When he left, the Patriots signed Darrelle Revis. When he left, the team developed Butler (one of the best stories in NFL history) before signing Stephon Gilmore. When Gilmore left, the team had Jackson before he left last offseason.

Between all that cornerback greatness, the Patriots drafted Cyrus Jones in the second round, Duke Dawson in the second round and Joejuan Williams in the second round. Those names will likely elicit an uneasy feeling in your stomach.


Now, Gonzalez enters the equation with the type of makeup that suggests he could develop into the next great Patriots cornerback.

He ran a 4.38 40-yard dash. On Thursday night, he said he was aware of the Patriots history at cornerback and hopes to follow suit.

“Definitely I know about it. I’m just excited to get in there and play just having great cornerbacks come out of that system,” Gonzalez said. “But yeah, I definitely watched Stephon Gilmore. He’s a great player. I want to follow in the footsteps of him.”

On Thursday night, Gonzalez was projected to go somewhere around the top 10. ESPN’s Todd McShay had him ranked as his No. 9 prospect and second cornerback. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler had him as his No. 5 prospect and top-ranked cornerback. In the end, Gonzalez fell further than he expected and was the third cornerback taken behind Devon Witherspoon (No. 5) and Emmanuel Forces (No. 16).

Gonzalez said he was surprised to last until No. 17.

“It all happens for a reason,” Gonzalez said. “God has a plan, so I trust in his plan. And I’m very excited to play under (Belichick). You can’t get a better coach than that, so I’m just excited to learn and go in there and compete.

Gonzalez comes to Foxborough with high expectations. While speaking at the NFL Combine this past March, the cornerback said after seeing Gardner and Woolen have success, he knows he can do the same.

“Watching Sauce and those rookies, it’s great to go through that because they’re tall, long lanky corners and I’m just like them,” Gonzalez said. “The fact they can do it, I know I can go in there and do it as well.”

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