New England Patriots V. Tennessee Titans: How Will Patriots Fare in Week 1?
There are few things more enjoyable for a fan of an NFL team than seeing his favorite squad's rookies shine on the big stage.
The Patriots have rookies at all three levels of their defense, and they'll be counting on them to produce in order for the Pats' defense to improve from last year's D, which ranked 31st in yards allowed.
Contributing in their first NFL game seems like a lot for Coach Bill Belichick to ask of his rookies.
Still, the Pats' roster is oozing with young talent at several key positions, and it's reasonable to expect another strong season from this year's New England team.
Let's take a look at how the Pats' rookies will fare against Tennessee (with a particular focus on the defense).
1) DE Chandler Jones
Chandler Jones is more than a physical freak.
In spite of his freakish 86-inch wingspan, 35-inch vertical leap and 4.8-second 40-time, scouts saw Jones as a bit of a project. Many believed he needed to fill out his 6'5" frame in order to get past bigger offensive linemen, and as such, he wouldn't be a factor this year.
What they overlooked is Jones' football intelligence.
The rookie from Syracuse showed up to camp with an impressive array of spin and power moves, using his strong footwork and long arms to gain leverage at the point of attack.
He showed great promise in his first preseason game against LT Jermon Bushrod, who had plenty of praise for Jones, saying:
He looks like a Pierre-Paul type, the way he comes off the ball. He has long arms, he's a tall guy and he has good speed. If you let him get into your chest, he has power enough to bull you.
He'll face a tough matchup in Titans' LT Michael Roos, one of the better blindside tackles in the game.
Still, Jones is tough to scout, since he showed up to camp with some veteran moves in his pocket. He'll fare well in his first NFL game.
Prediction: Jones gets his first NFL sack in Week 1
2) LB Dont'a Hightower
Dont'a Hightower is a strongside backer with the potential to become one of the best all-around defenders in the AFC.
He was the best running-stuffing defender in the 2012 class, with the technique and strength to leverage the ballcarrier and drive him to the ground. He's got the instincts to succeed in zone coverage, the quick-twitch reflexes to make plays on the ball and the power to pin his ears back and rush the passer from the inside.
His major weakness is lateral quickness, where opposing coaches will likely try to get him matched up in man-coverage against speedier players.
Still, he'll be a huge weapon against Titans' stud runner Chris Johnson, as long as the rest of the Pats' backers (including whipsmart captain Jerod Mayo and monster Brandon Spikes) can funnel him back between the tackles.
Hightower may not post huge stats in his first NFL game, but his ability to play MLB allows the Pats to move Mayo to the outside, where he's a better playmaker.
Prediction: Hightower amasses 5-6 tackles in Week 1
3) DB Nate Ebner
Few predicted former rugby star Nate Ebner would be much more than a (potentially great) special teams player.
That's because almost no one got a good chance to see him demonstrate his ballhawking skills.
Nick Caserio, director of player personnel, had this to say about Ebner:
[He] didn’t really have a lot of experience just defensively at Ohio State but [he's a] smart kid, [and] understood what they were doing real well defensively. I think he’s learning. I think it’s a process for him. But he has good size [6-0, 210], he’s smart, [and] he can run.
He's made several interceptions in training camp and displayed a knack for the ball.
While he likely will need a few games to carve out his role on the Pats' D, Ebner will make a few solid contributions in his first regular season game.
Prediction: Ebner racks up two tackles (one on special teams), one pass deflected
4) S Tavon Wilson
I'll admit, I had to run safety Tavon Wilson's name through a search engine when he was drafted with the 48th pick by the Pats in this year's draft.
I doubt I was alone.
Wilson, projected as a seventh-rounder out of Illinois, was clearly valued differently by the Patriots than by most draftniks.
Still, he's shown promise in training camp, picking up coverages and schemes with ease.
It remains to be seen if he's a playmaker, but he will add depth to a Pats' secondary that sorely needs it.
Prediction: Wilson sees limited time in Week 1, playing occasionally in sub packages that call for extra defensive backs
5) DE/OLB Jake Bequette
Jake Bequette is a prototypical Pats' player for one big reason: he's versatile, if not freakishly athletic.
During his time at Arkansas (where he was named First-Team All-SEC last season), Bequette played both in the three-point (defensive line) stance and stood up as a linebacker in coverage.
He showed he had the strength to get to the quarterback, putting up 23.5 sacks in his college career. He's also a stout-run defender who can get off blocks and funnel the play to the linebackers.
He's decent enough in coverage to play on the second level at times, and has the competitiveness and power to battle bigger interior lineman.
His major weakness is his lack of pass rush moves; watching his highlight reel and observing his time at Arkansas shows that he succeeded in the SEC with little more than a powerful bull-rush.
While Bequette's not yet polished enough to be a starter, his ability to play multiple roles will earn him solid playing time, even in Week 1. I even think he makes a surprisingly big play or two off the line.
Prediction: Bequette is brought in on certain packages and brings down a scrambling Jake Locker for his first NFL sack.
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