Which Rookies Could Start Right Away for the New England Patriots?
The Patriots changed their draft game plan from previous years, consolidating capital to move up for two top talents on defense in the first round. The rest of their draft featured players who the Patriots saw as good fits and rated higher than most teams, as well as one character risk who could pay huge dividends.
Which of these youngsters could start right away?
First-round linebacker Dont'a Hightower
Even though he was the second of the two first-round picks, Hightower is the most likely Patriots rookie to start in Week 1.
Mike Rodak of ESPNBoston reports that Hightower hasn't been on the field with the first team yet, despite the absence of Brandon Spikes. According to Rodak, Dane Fletcher has joined Jerod Mayo in defensive sets with two linebackers, and free-agent pickup Bobby Carpenter has been the third first-team linebacker.
Hightower has been lining up with the second-team subpackages and as the middle linebacker with the second unit. That may not last long, as Rodak also reports that Rob Ninkovich, who occupied the third linebacker position last year, has been moved to defensive end.
Hightower should come in training camp and the preseason ready to learn because he's an "excellent student," as Patriots linebacker coach Pepper Johnson said.
His biggest weakness coming out of Alabama, according to many scouting reports, was pass coverage. Nick Underhill from MassLive.com reports that Hightower "looked really solid" in coverage during the recent mini camp, and he picked off Brian Hoyer in the process. Underhill specifically says that if this trend continues, Hightower's initial role will be larger than expected.
First-round defensive end Chandler Jones
Jones was the first player that the Patriots took, as they lost both of their 2011 starters at his position. It seems like a foregone conclusion that he will start, but right now, it's harder to project him with the first team than Hightower. Free-agent pickup Trevor Scott has been impressing, and Christopher Price of WEEI.com reports that he and Ninkovich lined up with the first-team defense during the recent mini camp.
Jones hasn't been singled out for praise as often as Hightower, and he also had a knee issue that the trainers were checking out during the mini camp. Undrafted free agent Justin Francis was also getting reps with first team, according to Patriots.com.
Chances are, Jones will be part of a cast of defensive ends that are marched out in various combinations depending on the game situation. He could be a starter in name, but he won't get a true starter's share of reps at the beginning of his career.
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