The New England Patriots' 2012 draft picks are in training camp striving to make an impression. These greenhorns will have to sponge up the playbook, because soon they will be called upon to produce.
July and August are a time for rookie hazing: being duct taped to the field goal post, receiving a terrible haircut or even carrying a veteran's helmet and shoulder pads.
Yet, these months also prepare players for the mental and physical grind of the NFL. If the rookies play well, they will cement a job. If they don't, well, they won't.
How will New England's draft selections fare in their debut seasons?
Here is a statistical projection for the Patriots' seven notable rookies.
Chandler Jones has some hype surrounding him.
As a first-round draft choice, Chandler Jones now has to live up to the hype.
The 6'5", 260-pound Syracuse product could line up at defensive end or outside linebacker this season—making him a versatile specimen to watch. He's got long arms and a quick first step, which are two desirable traits for an edge rusher in the Patriots' hybrid Elephant position.
However, expectations must be tempered when it comes to Jones.
The Endicott, N.Y. native never amassed more than 4.5 sacks in one season for the Orangemen (h/t ESPN.com). It's unfair to think he will suddenly break out for 10 sacks right off the bat. Jones put together two seasons of 50-plus tackles, but will that translate from Big East to AFC East competition?
Jones has a rather thin frame for an NFL defensive end. He would benefit by adding some weight to his rangy body. As for now, it won't be easy for Jones to get leverage against 300-pound offensive tackles.
Regardless of the uncertainty, the Boston Herald had kind words to say about Jones and his future in New England:
Most Long-Term Potential: Before the draft, a couple of well-respected analyst said defensive end Chandler Jones would be the best defensive prospect by the time it’s all said and done. Jones is a balanced player who can defend the run and get after the quarterback, and that’s the type of flexibility that Bill Belichick wants out of players on the edge because it keeps them on the field for three downs.
Jones could very well become a household name in the NFL, yet all good things take time. On the depth chart (courtesy of Patriots.com), Jones is battling the likes of Trevor Scott, Jonathan Fanene, Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Deaderick.
If the stars align, it's also a possibility that free agent Andre Carter returns to Foxborough (h/t Mike Reiss, ESPNBoston.com). Carter recorded 10 sacks last season before suffering a quad injury (h/t Shalise Manza Young, The Boston Globe). He would provide Jones with a mentor, but would likely hinder his role as a rookie.
2012 Projected Statistics: 50 tackles, six sacks, one forced fumble
Dont'a Hightower has the skill set to make an immediate impact.
Dont'a Hightower adds to the Patriots' already talented linebacker corps.
A first-rounder out of Alabama, Hightower looks ready to play right away. He possesses an elite understanding for the game, which helps him play multiple linebacker spots.
According to NFL.com's Brian McIntyre, Hightower is in the running with Rob Ninkovich at strong-side linebacker but may also solidify the defense as a pass rushing presence.
At 6'4", 270 pounds, the Crimson Tide tackler is an imposing figure to face. That size may be a disadvantage in pass coverage, but it's certainly strength in run coverage. When he gets a full head of steam, he can derail the most dependable ball-carriers.
If Hightower can clinch a starting gig in year one, there's no saying what he could do. During his senior season in 2011, the 22-year-old racked up 83 total tackles, four sacks and an interception (courtesy of ESPN.com). Those numbers don't seem too astronomical for Hightower to repeat this year.
Unfortunately, sub-packages are becoming the base defenses of NFL teams. This formation swaps in an extra defensive back and displaces a linebacker. Hightower will have prove his worth early and often to stay on the field.
2012 Projected Statistics: 75 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles
Tavon Wilson will have to make a name for himself.
Second-round draft pick Tavon Wilson gives the Patriots a young and flexible safety to utilize.
The Illinois defensive back has played cornerback, nickelback and special teams. Yet, free safety looks to be where he will line up in the NFL (h/t profootballweekly.com).
Most high draft selections are dissected until there's no analysis left to be had—Wilson is not like most high draft picks.
In fact, he's actually a mystery prospect. Most analysts had him as a late-round pick if he was to be drafted at all. Now, the 6'0", 210-pound rookie has a shot to give his critics pause.
In part because Wilson wasn't at the combine or all-star games, it helped shape the perception that he isn't an elite prospect. It also explained how Wilson could slip under the radar of prominent draft analysts in the media such as Mike Mayock, Todd McShay and Mel Kiper. On Friday, the pick had some of those analysts scrambling for more information on live television.
With very little to go off of, coach Bill Belichick and Co. must be given some slack for this selection.
Wilson should compete with free-agent acquisition Steve Gregory for the starting safety job next to Patrick Chung. If he doesn't win the depth chart battle, his multifaceted play will help him contribute as a backup and on the special teams units.
2012 Projected Statistics: 40 tackles, one interception
Jake Bequette should answer the call as a rookie.
Jake Bequette may be new to the Patriots, but he's no stranger to sacking quarterbacks.
The Arkansas Razorback notched 10 sacks during his senior year and seven sacks during his junior year (h/t Rivals.com). Expect the trend to continue this year with New England, as Bequette is a smart and high-motor type of talent.
The third-round pick may not start as a rookie, but he should be able to slide into the rotation whenever needed. He's a stout run defender as well, which makes him another option for the Elephant role.
However, at 6'5", 274 pounds, Bequette is not the most agile athlete. He's a little tight in the hips, making it hard for him to change direction. He may be best served as a third-down defensive end in the NFL.
One thing is certain: Bequette has the drive to excel in his first pro season. Don't be surprised if he makes some game-changing stops in 2012.
2012 Projected Statistics: 25 tackles, four sacks, one forced fumble
Nate Ebner's special teams grit could be what decides his fate as a Patriot.
The Ohio State defensive back was a sixth-round pick and will have to stand out in preseason to make the team, but he's got the mentality to succeed in the NFL.
Raw on defense, Ebner's best crack at making the Patriots' final roster will be as a special teams gunner. If he fails to make the 53-man roster, the practice squad would be a place for him to be groomed.
In the best-case scenario, the ex-Buckeye captain rises up from the scout team to help the Pats finish the dirty work.
Ebner relishes running down the field on kickoff coverage. What team doesn't need a guy like that?
2012 Projected Statistics: 10 tackles
Alfonzo Dennard should bolster the Patriots' cornerback group.
Short but tough, Alfonzo Dennard was a value pick for the Patriots in Round 7 of the draft.
After a shutdown senior season, the Nebraska Cornhusker was named the Big Ten's defensive back of the year (h/t Huskers.com). As far as seventh-rounders are considered, Dennard has a great chance of making the New England roster.
If that plan comes to fruition, expect Dennard to play as a nickel or dimeback and filter into the mix on special teams.
ESPNBoston.com's Mike Rodak vetted the Patriots' most polarizing rookie:
Considered an early-to-mid round talent by some draft analysts, Dennard slipped to the seventh round after an arrest five days before April's draft. While Dennard will begin low on the depth chart, the landscape ahead of him could change. In an often unsettled defensive backfield, Dennard could quickly find a significant role if he emerges this summer.
He doesn't have the longest arms or the fastest feet, but Dennard should be a fine pro. Working underneath upstarts like Devin McCourty, Ras-I Dowling, Kyle Arrington and Sterling Moore, Dennard will be learning from some other gifted corners.
2012 Projected Statistics: 25 tackles, one interception
Jeremy Ebert has a tough task ahead of him.
Northwestern's Jeremy Ebert will have to show the coaching staff that he deserves a roster spot over players like Donte' Stallworth, Julian Edelman, Deion Branch and Britt Davis.
The 75 catches, 1,060 yards and 11 touchdowns he produced as a Wildcat senior should help him make a case for the 53-man roster (courtesy of ESPN.com). But the NFL is a "what have you done for me lately" league.
If in fact the 5'11", 195-pound slot receiver makes the team, his biggest impact will be on special teams. If he misses the cut, Ebert is a practice squad candidate who could be brought up if an injury transpires. Except, he may hold too much notoriety for another franchise not to claim him.
For now, he's a project that could pan out down the road. The more he can do, the better off he will be.
2012 Projected Statistics: Five receptions, 60 receiving yards