New England Patriots training camp is well underway and a rookie class headlined by first-round picks Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower is fighting to earn a spot on the roster. While some are well on their way to making an impact, others are closer to getting voted off the island.
After attending various training camp sessions and scoping the Internet for others' observations, here are report card grades for every rookie currently on New England's roster.
Jones is showing early in training camp why the Patriots traded up in last April's NFL draft from No. 27 overall to No. 21 overall to ensure that he was wearing a Patriots jersey in 2012.
Already taking the majority of snaps with the first-team defense, Jones is making the case that he should be a starter in Week 1.
Greg Bedard of The Boston Globe summed it up nicely in a recent piece, writing:
Chandler Jones is a starter, and I don't really foresee that changing...Jones entered camp much stronger than most anticipated, and his pass-rush moves are much more advanced than your typical early-entry, first-round pick...Jones is the clear leader at the end/linebacker hybrid Elephant position on the right side of the Patriots' defense.
With Mark Anderson and Andre Carter out of town (along with their 20 collective sacks), Jones' early emergence is just what the doctor prescribed.
Adjusting to the speed of the NFL is usually something that takes at least a full season to accomplish for most rookies.
This isn't the case for Dont'a Hightower.
Less than two weeks into training camp, Hightower was gushing with confidence when speaking to the media (per Jeff Howe of The Boston Herald):
“To me, the speed hasn’t change[d] as much, not as big (of an adjustment) as I thought it would be. The players that are in front of me and around me, you can definitely tell the difference between college and pros. But it’s just something that after a little while you get a little bit of experience and things will slow down for you. I’m starting to hit that bump where things are starting to slow down for me. I’m getting a little bit more comfortable in my style of play.”
Having played all over Nick Saban's Patriots-esque defense throughout his college career at Alabama, Hightower is well-versed in New England's defensive concepts and terminology, setting himself up nicely to make an impact early in his NFL career.
Like Jones, Hightower is already seeing substantial time with the first-team defense, playing mostly at strong-side linebacker in a base 4-3 look and moving to inside linebacker in sub-packages.
Selecting the virtually unknown Tavon Wilson in the second round of the NFL draft stunned football experts around the nation.
However, Wilson hasn't done anything in camp yet to suggest that he isn't worthy of the high draft pick.
Andy Hart of Patriots Football Weekly offers his thoughts on the rookie safety, writing:
Wilson continues to have a solid rookie training camp as a surprise second-round pick. He’s getting more reps by the day and doesn’t seem to be having any trouble keeping up with the defensive schemes and coverages that have been thrown his way. I haven’t seen him make a lot of plays, but I haven’t seen him give up too many either.
With the struggles that New England's safety group experienced last year, the early strides of the young safety are certainly welcome.
Jake Bequette was extremely productive as a pass-rusher at Arkansas, collecting seven sacks in his junior year, followed by 10 sacks in his senior year.
Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston was impressed by Bequette at a recent practice. "Defensive end Jake Bequette had a terrific rush on Nate Solder in 1-on-1 drills." Reiss added that "[He used] his hands to knock Solder back and surge toward the quarterback."
In New England, third-round picks are rarely asked to contribute heavily in their rookie seasons, but if early signs are any indication, Bequette might be able to do just that come the regular season.
Brandon Bolden, an undrafted rookie out of Ole Miss, has been a pleasant surprise early in training camp, showcasing strong running, impressive burst and good hands.
“Like all the rookies, he’s made plenty of mistakes,” Belichick said. “But he’s made progress, he’s worked at it. Like I said, he’s a smart kid, he’s picked things up fairly well.”
These are strong words coming from a man who usually responds with a few words and a couple throat-clearing noises.
Another undrafted rookie who is making a strong case to be part of the 53-man roster is Justin Francis.
The former Rutgers Scarlett Knight has been a disruptive force so far in camp, being utilized as an edge rusher as well as seeing time at defensive tackle.
Patriots' director of player personnel Nick Caserio opined on Francis' versatility to the media (h/t Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston):
"Justin was a pretty versatile player [at Rutgers]. They actually played him as a 3 technique (outside shade on guard) and a little bit of a 1 technique (inside shade on guard), so he kind of played inside defensive tackle, and some on the perimeter on the end of the line of scrimmage. Disruptive player. Played 100 miles per hour, non-stop motor."
Francis is an early favorite to contribute on the defensive line in 2012.
Nate Ebner (S): The former rugby star turned special teams ace at Ohio State suited up for his first training camp practice this past Friday after suffering an injury that has kept him out of the first eight sessions of camp. However, Ebner has already been seen taking snaps with the top kickoff return unit (as reported by Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston).
Alfonzo Dennard (CB): The talented cornerback who fell to the Pats in the last round of the draft due to character concerns has only completed one full day of practice due to a leg injury suffered in the second day of training camp. For what it's worth though, before his injury, I did see Dennard make a solid pass defense on a ball thrown from Tom Brady down the sideline intended for Jabar Gaffney.
Jeremy Ebert (WR): Ebert just came off the Active/Physically Unable to Perform list on Sunday after failing his physical (h/t Paul Perillo of Patriots Football Weekly). He's made some nice grabs here and there but this still isn't a good start for a rookie competing for a spot on one of the deepest wide receiver classes in the NFL.
Tyler Urban (TE): The undrafted rookie out of West Virginia is making the most of his reps and has had some nice catches throughout camp so far, but like Ebert, he faces an uphill climb. If veteran tight ends Daniel Fells and Visanthe Shiancoe return to health, Urban's chances will severely diminish.
Marcus Forston (DT): There haven't been any really good or really bad reports regarding Forston's camp performance. He never lived up to the hype surrounding him heading into his collegiate career and it looks like he's not going to live up to the minimal hype he received entering his NFL career either.
Jeremiah Warren (OL): With the team thin at guard, Warren has been seeing a lot of time at both guard positions with the second team. He hasn't impressed much though.
Dustin Waldron (OL): Waldron has not looked good in practice, getting knocked around with ease on multiple occasions.
Darrion Weems (OL): Weems has been sort of a bright light among the rookie offensive lineman. He seems to hold his own in 1-on-1 drills.
Derrick Dennis (OL): Claimed off waivers from Miami last week (per Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston), Dennis had his first padded practice with the team just this Monday (per Paul Perillo of Patriots Football Weekly). It's hard to get a good read on him just yet.
Kyle Hill (OL): Hill was signed by the team just yesterday (per Patriots.com) and has yet to practice. At this point, he looks like more of a camp body than a future contributor.
Mark Zusevics (OL): After failing a team physical upon reporting to camp and consequently landing on the Active/Non-football Injury list (h/t Mike Reiss and Mike Rodak of ESPNBoston), Zusevics has yet to practice with the team.
James is a New England Patriots featured columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @JamesDiMaio for more news and updates. Unless otherwise noted, all training camp observations are first-hand.