Grades for Every New England Patriots Rookie Through Preseason Week 2
The month of August may not factor into the regular-season NFL standings, but don't say it doesn't count. At least, don't say it to any rookies around the league.
For NFL first-timers, the dog days of summer are a trial by fire. Everything's at stake. They either use these training camp practices or preseason games to secure spots on rosters or starting spots on the depth chart.
Furthermore, the NFL is a league of first impressions. Get hurt in your first training camp and you're designated as injury-prone, which can be a tough tag to shed. For many rookies, this is not only their best chance to impress their coaches: It might be the only one.
According to the New England Patriots roster, 17 rookies are battling for spots on the squad. With two preseason games and several weeks of training camp in the books, we have a sense for which ones are seizing the opportunity and which ones are lagging behind.
Brandon Bolden, HB
Running back was a question mark heading into this season, and the Patriots are drawing on a familiar source for an answer.
Following BenJarvus Green-Ellis's path from 2008, an undrafted rookie out of Mississippi is making waves in the preseason. Brandon Bolden has emerged as a name with staying power in the running back race. He's impressed so far in camp, and his eight carries for 23 yards (long run of 13 yards) in the preseason opener against New Orleans made for a solid debut.
Things took a bit of a downturn in the second game, however, as he struggled on punt returns, muffing one and getting rocked shortly after catching a second one. It's clear he needs seasoning in that area of the game, from locating and tracking the ball to keeping tabs on where the coverage is closing in from.
Given his undrafted status, how far he's had to go to become an active roster hopeful and the coaching staff's apparent desire to get him involved, it's a good start for Bolden.
Jeff Demps, HB
The Patriots provided shock waves when they landed the sprinter and Olympic silver medalist last week. Patriots fans immediately began fantasizing about kick return after kick return being brought back for touchdowns, and for good reason.
It's been a late start for Demps, who was in London while his teammates were whipping themselves into football shape, but it's fair to expect that Bill Belichick pursued him with thoughts on how he could contribute this year. We could see Demps in action Friday against Tampa Bay.
Grade: Incomplete (though a tip of the cap to the former Florida Gator for helping the United States win the silver)
Jeremy Ebert, WR
When you're a seventh-round draft pick hoping to stick on the active roster in a special teams role, it's important to start fast in camp.
Unfortunately for Ebert, he stumbled out of the gate. He suffered a hamstring injury that kept him off of the practice field until Aug. 5 and out of pads even longer. Injuries aren't always a player's fault, but time off the field is a detriment regardless.
His performance from the season opener was modest, as he caught one pass from Ryan Mallett for four yards. He was more involved against Philadelphia, catching three passes on eight targets for 18 yards, but he also dropped a pass on a scoring drive when he would have had room for yards after the catch.
Tyler Urban, TE
Urban faced a daunting task going into this preseason, as the undrafted tight end out of West Virginia had to impress at a position that included stars Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, as well as recently-signed Visanthe Shiancoe.
So far, Urban hasn't made an impact in camp, but his performance in the preseason opener was a different story, as he hauled in a pass from Ryan Mallett for a 20-yard reception. His second game featured a drop on his lone target for the game, never a good thing to commit to the game film.
Derek Dennis, Kyle Hill, Dustin Waldron, OL
So far, Dennis has been better known for his time on another team, as he was the Dolphins' first cut on "Hard Knocks."
He hasn't been cut yet with the Patriots (take the positives where you can), but it's also been a short tenure with the team so far (he was signed Aug. 3). It's too early to form a true judgment on him; how you perform with one team has no bearing on how you perform with another.
A starter at Duke for four years, Hill (No. 79, above) was signed Aug. 8 as a depth move during that period where seemingly every Patriots lineman was hurt, underperforming or retired.
Similar with Derek Dennis, it just hasn't been enough time with his new team to put down a grade.
Waldron's story has plenty in common with Derek Dennis's. Waldron was cut by the Dolphins, then signed by New England at the start of August.
Also like Dennis, Waldron is a need signing. The Patriots are scrambling to fill holes along the offensive line, so depth additions abound. This could help players like Waldron and Dennis sneak onto the active roster. The Patriots just aren't strong enough on the line to rule that out.
All three players are lumped together because they all haven't shown enough yet to warrant a grade. They were added earlier this month and have limited, if any, game exposure so far. Perhaps they'll get their shots during the games against Tampa Bay and the New York Giants.
Jeremiah Warren, OG/C
Warren is having a rough summer. The USF product failed a physical July 19 and wasn't activated until July 31, and hasn't looked any more fit to play in his time on the field.
When the Boston Globe's Greg Bedard sends his condolences to the quarterback when you take the field, there's a problem.
Darrion Weems, OT
After being acquired off waivers from Minnesota July 27, Weems has had to make do with a new team on the fly. He's done a decent job, making it into the game against Philadelphia and holding his own, even as Eagles rushers were having a good night.
Jake Bequette, DE
Pretty good showing by the third-round pick so far. He was a handful against the Saints, recording three tackles, a sack and a tackle for loss, and he posted another three tackles against the Eagles Monday night.
The former Razorback has also been getting work on playing multiple defensive positions. Good start. Bequette is looking like he's on the way to becoming a solid player.
Marcus Forston, DT
It won't be an easy road to the active roster for Forston, an undrafted tackle trying to make it at defensive line, a position that's consistently deep in New England. The former Miami Hurricane is giving it a go, however, and chalking up three tackles for loss in two games is a good way to get coaches to notice you.
He drew praise from the Boston Globe's Greg Bedard after the preseason opener against the Saints, but he's still a long shot to contribute come September.
Justin Francis, DE
After not making it onto the stat sheet against the Saints, Francis posted three tackles Monday night against Philadelphia. Plus, he got poked in the eye and came back into the game. Pure heart.
Chandler Jones, DE
Even as a first-round pick, the 21st overall selection, Jones is ahead of schedule. He was supposedly raw coming out of Syracuse, but he's looked like an immediate contributor in the early going. Jones is abusing offensive linemen, getting to the quarterback and showing strength and speed in bunches.
Jones notched two tackles against the Saints and none against the Eagles, but the guy can flat out play. He shows off his athleticism on almost every snap, and already, you don't have to go far to read good things about the promising rookie.
Dont'a Hightower, LB
It might be because Chandler Jones's fast start has dominated the headlines, but Hightower's start has seemed much quieter by comparison.
Still, the former leader of the Alabama Crimson Tide defense has shown impressive poise in the early going. He was given the task of communicating defensive calls and signals to the rest of the team against the Eagles, and the early analysis is that Hightower was able to handle the assignment.
He's started both games and totaled four tackles and a QB hit against the Saints, looking like the kind of versatile, all-over-the-field weapon the Patriots envisioned when they moved up to take him. Hightower hasn't been generating story after story the way Jones has, but the rookie is clearly getting a grasp on what it'll take to be an NFL linebacker.
Alfonzo Dennard, CB
There was hope among Patriots fans that Dennard (in picture, right) was going to be the steal of the draft, a first-round talent who nearly fell off of the entire board due to a myriad of off-the-field trouble and red flags, only to end up becoming New England's latest bargain stud.
Instead, the seventh-round pick out of Nebraska is making that selection seem high. Dennard is 0-for-2 in preseason appearances, and his preseason hit a bump July 27 when he left practice with a hurt hamstring. He hasn't returned.
When Belichick was asked about Dennard's continued absence, the stoic coach, as is per usual, opted against speaking about the player specifically. But his answer was telling.
"You hate to see any player miss time," he said. "The more days they miss, the further behind they fall."
Nate Ebner, SS
When Nate Ebner was drafted in the sixth round of April's draft, he was taken as a defensive back. It was supposedly his position in name, only. Ebner was going to play special teams. Nothing more.
However, during this preseason, the time of year when players show they can do and handle more, Ebner has done just that. He's doing the special teams work, of course, but he's got Belichick eager to try him in the backfield. Safety, corner, whatever. Give it a shot, kid, and see what you can do.
The results have been good. Ebner's been a hard worker, and that work paid off when the player who played three defensive snaps all year at Ohio State in 2011 recorded an interception in the preseason loss to the Eagles.
In addition, Ebner's made the most of his recent practice reps. His responsibilities have actually increased at the NFL level. When you're a sixth-round pick, that's how you make an impact.
Tavon Wilson, FS
So far, Wilson's been the ideal Patriot. He's been consistent, productive and eager to learn. Analysts lost their minds at the sight of New England supposedly reaching for the University of Illinois product, but the Patriots apparently knew what they were doing.
Whether a second-round pick was a tad expensive for a player like Wilson will be debated forever, but if you believe that a draft pick is never improperly used if it nets a good player, then the Patriots might hold the edge in the discussion.
According to first-hand reports, Wilson has been gaining the trust of the coaching staff in the early going. The report describes him as an eager learner, which is good, because Wilson's far from a finished product. But he seems to have the right makeup.
Unfortunately, he also has an injury, as a hurt left ankle kept him out of a recent practice and the second game against the Eagles. It'll be important for Wilson's sake for him to recover soon.