How Each Draft Pick Fits into New England Patriots' Plan in 2012
For them, the arduous journey will continue through rookie mini camp, training camp and preseason games. If everything goes well, these Patriot greenhorns will stick around. If not, then roster cut-down days will be their demise.
Head coach Bill Belichick saw something in Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Tavon Wilson, Jake Bequette, Nate Ebner, Alfonzo Dennard and Jeremy Ebert. But the jury is still out when it comes to their immediate impact.
The burning question is: How will these players fit into New England's system next season?
Round 1, Pick 21: Chandler Jones, Defensive End, Syracuse
Syracuse's Chandler Jones is a physical athlete at 6'5" and 265 pounds. With an arm length of 35-and-a-half inches, Jones will be able to evade his blockers, bat down passes and wrap up quarterbacks at the NFL level.
As the Patriots first choice in the 2012 NFL draft, the former Orangeman's pass rushing prowess gives him a leg up on the competition. Director of player personnel Nick Caserio and coach Bill Belichick made an effort to bolster the defense this offseason, and Jones figures into that mix.
Currently, the Pats' roster includes Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick, Jonathan Fanene, Trevor Scott, Alex Silvestro, Markell Carter and fellow draft pick Jake Bequette at defensive end. Jones' athleticism and ability to sack the QB poses a threat to all of his new teammates on the defensive line.
One matter that could be pivotal to Jones' development is the unclear future of free agent Andre Carter. If Carter returns for a second season in New England, he would likely maintain a starting job after a 10-sack campaign in 2011. But even if Carter is on board for another year, the 32-year-old could be a mentor to the rookie.
Look for Jones to make a run at one of the starting defensive end spots in 2012. In the worst-case scenario, the Patriots' top pick is a third-down specialist during his first season in the system.
According to Greg A. Bedard of the Boston Globe, Jones is expected to play the "Elephant role" in New England's defensive scheme.
"Jones is the prototype for the 'elephant' position that was made famous in these parts by Willie McGinest," said Bedard. "The position made a comeback last season when Andre Carter and then Mark Anderson filled the role."
Round 1, Pick 25: Dont'a Hightower, Inside Linebacker, Alabama
Alabama's Dont'a Hightower provided the Patriots with great value at pick 25. He's a run stopper and a pass rusher, all in one.
According to CBSSports.com, the 6'2", 265-pound athlete can play any linebacker position in a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. Based on the flexibility of players like Julian Edelman, Matthew Slater and others, versatility is music to Bill Belichick's ears.
With inside linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes coming into the prime of their careers, Hightower will likely set up shop at one of the outside linebacker spots. In a 3-4 front seven, Rob Ninkovich could use some help at the opposing outside linebacker position. In a 4-3 scheme, however, the Crimson Tide product could be nipping at Ninkovich's heels on the depth chart.
"With Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes cemented as inside linebackers in the Patriots’ 4-3 hybrid scheme, Hightower would seem to be a natural to come after Rob Ninkovich’s starting spot at strongside linebacker," said the Boston Globe's Greg A. Bedard. "If that happened, Ninkovich, whose legs got tired last season, could be freed up to use his versatility better on passing downs."
Hightower's emerging talent and football I.Q. make him a strong candidate to start as a rookie next season. His playing time may come at the expense of Ninkovich, but his role also relies upon New England's defensive formation.
Round 2, Pick 48: Tavon Wilson, Safety, Illinois
With the Patriots' second-round selection, they drafted a head-scratcher: Tavon Wilson.
A reach? Yes. Wilson was projected by CBSSports.com as a sixth- to seventh-round draft choice—at best. Nonetheless, the Patriots' front office chose the Illinois defensive back because they were interested in his talents.
He's a feisty defender in both pass and run situations. Wilson's multi-faceted game is why he went in the second round. At 6'0", 205 pounds, Wilson is built to play safety. However, he's also got good burst, running a 4.52 40-yard dash.
Besides playing safety for the Fighting Illini, Wilson was the gunner on special teams and a cornerback when he felt it was best for the team. To boot, the three-year starter was a captain during his senior season.
Strong safety Patrick Chung is in need of a viable counterpart at free safety. As of now, Steve Gregory, Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett, Sterling Moore and Malcolm Williams are all vying for a starting spot. But could Wilson factor in as a rookie in 2012?
According to Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com, Belichick compares Wilson to another Illinois safety—Eugene Wilson—a Patriots second-round pick in 2003. Both players spent time at cornerback in college.
During his first professional season, Tavon Wilson will fit into New England's defensive backfield as a backup safety and special teamer. He's not flashy, but he will fight to stay on the field no matter if it's first down or fourth down.
“I’m just going to come in, play special teams, be the best at whatever position they play me at," Wilson told Michael Whitmer of the Boston Globe. "The more you can do, the better you’re going to be."
Round 3, Pick 90: Jake Bequette, Defensive End, Arkansas
Arkansas' fifth-year senior Jake Bequette has been compared to Mike Vrabel by CBSSports.com's analysts. That said, the 6'5", 274-pound pass rusher also has the size to line up at defensive end in the NFL.
“I played the 4-3 end mostly in college but I stood up a little bit doing the outside linebacker position in the Senior Bowl and at the combines," Bequette told Rich Thompson of the Boston Herald. "The more I did it, the more it kind of grew on me so I feel very comfortable in both. I can’t wait to see what the coaches have in store for me," he said.
Bequette knows how to get to the quarterback, registering 10 sacks in 2011 for the Razorbacks. With the athleticism to play as stand-up pass rusher in sub packages, and the girth to put his hand in the dirt, Bequette will find his niche as a rookie.
Bequette has the potential to fight for a starting gig, but that appears unlikely to happen as a rookie with the acquisitions of Trevor Scott and Jonathan Fanene. Anticipate the stout pass rusher to work primarily as a backup defensive end and situational outside linebacker on blitzes.
Round 6, Pick 197: Nate Ebner, Safety, Ohio State
In the sixth round, the Patriots went for a special teams ace named Nate Ebner.
Ebner was named USA's Most Valuable Player of the Rugby World Cup in both 2007 and 2008. The Ohio State prospect did not play a lick of football in high school. But his proficiency as a rugby player helped him excel as a Buckeyes special teamer, collecting 30 career tackles.
At 6'0" and 205 pounds, Ebner is built like a rock. However, he also has proven to be a fluid runner, running a 4.47 40-time and leaping for a 39-inch vertical at Ohio State's Pro Day.
Nate Ebner plays with heart and is perfect for special teams duty. If he makes the Patriots 53-man roster, he will jump right into the special teams fold.
“I would have to say I [prefer] kickoffs,” Ebner said to the Boston Herald's Rich Thompson. “I don’t know why but I just enjoy running down as fast as you can and it’s just mayhem, it’s just exciting. It is such a rush I don’t know what to say. It is such a rush. It is just one big blur and then it’s over.”
Ebner could become a folk hero in Foxboro, a place where Larry Izzo is still admired for his special teams grit.
Round 7, Pick 224: Alfonzo Dennard, Cornerback, Nebraska
Nebraska's Alfonzo Dennard had first-round talent, but allegedly punched a police officer days before the draft. Consequently, the Patriots took a low-risk, high-reward shot on the Cornhusker cornerback in the seventh round.
"He’s strong. He’s a physical player," Bill Belichick told CSNNE.com's Tom Curran. "Obviously he played at a high level of competition, particularly in the 2010 season where they played so much in the passing conference (The Big 12)—a lot of spread out offenses, a lot of nickel, dime coverage and that type of thing."
Comfortable in a variety of positions, the 5'10", 205-pound defensive back has a chance to prove his doubters wrong. Walterfootball.com's Charlie Campbell feels that Dennard is best in zone coverage and must overcome a poor showing at the Senior Bowl.
"He had a fantastic collegiate career and was a strong cover corner," said Campbell. "Dennard really struggled at the Senior Bowl, and while he had a fast 40 time at the Combine (4.51 with a 10-yard split 1.52), he didn't do enough in the field drills to answer some concerns about his hip flexibility."
Alfonzo Dennard's role on the Patriots depends on the success of young cornerbacks Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling and Sterling Moore. If the aforementioned struggle, Dennard might be thrust into action. Yet if these corners play well, then Dennard won't make much of a difference early on.
He has the potential to be a starting-caliber corner in the NFL, but must mature and learn the defense first. Dennard will see the field in nickle or dime packages, yet time will tell if the risk is worth the reward.
"Meanwhile, the reward is that if Dennard does mature and get it together - perhaps with him slipping to the seventh round as a wake-up call - the Patriots will have stolen a player much later than he was expected to be picked," said ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss.
Round 7, Pick 235: Jeremy Ebert, Wide Receiver, Northwestern
New England finally went offense with their final draft pick. Northwestern wide-out Jeremy Ebert is just 5'10", but he's nifty in space and ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at his Pro Day.
Patriots beat writer Mike Reiss reports that Ebert was a dual-threat quarterback in high school, which is much like what Julian Edelman did at Kent State.
Experienced as a slot receiver, Ebert joins the mold of both Edelman and Wes Welker. Yet his chances of making the 53-man roster look slim.
"The Patriots are loaded at receiver with Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Deion Branch, Edelman, Chad Ochocinco, Donte Stallworth, Gonzalez and Tiquan Underwood atop the depth chart, so making the roster will be a challenge for Ebert," said Mike Reiss. "But the Patriots have an older look at the position, so developing a younger target—either on the roster or practice squad—makes a lot of sense."
It's a numbers game, and Jeremy Ebert is simply on the wrong side of the depth chart at this point in time. Odds are, Ebert is cut at the end of the preseason. However, a shifty slot receiver with special teams expertise could land on the practice squad and his speed might make him a return man.