New England Patriots: Grading the Team's First Round of 2012 NFL Draft

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New England Patriots: Grading the Team's First Round of 2012 NFL Draft
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Syracuse's Chandler Jones was chosen by the Patriots with the 21st overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft.

The New England Patriots shocked the first round of the 2012 NFL draft by trading up to select Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones and Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower.

New England sent pick Nos. 27 and 93 to the Cincinnati Bengals in exchange for the No. 21 spot, where the team drafted Chandler Jones. Then, the Patriots acquired Dont'a Hightower with the 25th selection after trading picks 31 and 126 to the Denver Broncos.

During Chandler Jones' junior season at Syracuse, the 6'5", 266-pound pass-rusher battled injuries and totaled just 4.5 sacks. However, the former Orangeman is loaded with talent and possesses a high motor. At March's NFL Scouting Combine, the defensive end ran a 4.87-second 40-yard dash and benched 22 reps. Athleticism runs in the Jones family: his brothers are UFC fighter Jon Jones and Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Art Jones.  

"He is 'scheme-diverse' and can play with his hand in the dirt or on the outside," said NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal. "He is a massive man like [Willie] McGinest, yet can make plays and cover in the open field."

Jones will factor into the mix early on for New England and fill the void at defensive end.

As for pick No. 25, inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower provides the Patriots with excellent value. The 6'2", 265-pound junior has great range and is an intimidating figure for opposing offenses. He can attack the backfield and is a sure tackler. At Indianapolis' combine, Hightower posted a 4.68 40-yard dash and a 32-inch vertical leap. But with Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes locking down the Patriots' inside linebacker spots, where will Hightower play?

"You look at Hightower and one position doesn't stand out for him," said ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss. "This is a versatility type of pick - coverage, run-stuffing, potential pass-rush help on the edge."

Al Bello/Getty Images
Alabama pass rusher Dont'a Hightower was New England's pick at No. 25.

It is uncertain where the Crimson Tide pass-rusher will line up for New England, but his instincts could make him capable of transitioning to the outside linebacker position, where Rob Ninkovich could use some assistance.

All in all, the first round was kind to the New England Patriots. Head coach Bill Belichick and Co. managed to trade up without overpaying. Despite the Pats' draft trend of trading down, New England stepped up and grabbed two elite performers. The defensive front's woes appear to be fixed, but the Patriots will likely continue to add to the talent to the defensive side of the ball on Day 2 and Day 3 of the draft.

With examination of the current depth chart, safety appears to be the next glaring issue, as the Patriots ranked 31st in pass defense in 2011. The roster currently includes Patrick Chung, Steve Gregory, Sergio Brown, Malcolm Williams and Sterling Moore.

Yet the offensive line, cornerback and wide receiver (long-term) positions could also be bolstered with young prospects.

With the next six rounds coming into focus, the Patriots still have some holes in their roster. But the recent trades have left the team with only two selections: picks 48 and 62. Somewhere down the road, New England will be forced to trade down to accumulate more draft picks. Yet overall, Day 1 of the 2012 draft was a success.

First-Round Grade: A

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