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New England Patriots Rookie Progress Report Through First 4 Games

Oliver ThomasContributor IJuly 17, 2016

New England Patriots Rookie Progress Report Through First 4 Games

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    The New England Patriots' 2012 rookie class has been a bright spot through thick and thin this season.

    Six of seven draft selections and two undrafted talents remain from the numbers game. Thus far, their arrows are pointing up, for the most part.

    These rookies still have a long way to go, but their development is promising. Here is a progress report for each rookie currently on the New England 53-man roster.

Chandler Jones, Defensive End

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    Chandler Jones has been as good as advertised through four games this season. Check that—the No. 21 overall pick in this year's draft has been better than advertised.

    The 6'5", 260-pound defensive end has emerged onto the scene and played like one of the brightest young defensive players in the league. The numbers don't lie, either; Jones has amassed 17 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles in the early going.

    On Sept. 26, ESPN NFL Insider Matt Williamson slotted the Syracuse product as the No. 3 prospect in his "Rookie Watch." Williamson analyzed what has set Jones apart (h/t ESPNBoston.com's Field Yates.)

    "Jones is equally effective in a two- or three-point stance and he has great versatility -- which of course endears him to Bill Belichick. He has been the only consistent pass-rusher for New England,"

    Jones may be all arms and legs, but he's clearly got an advantage against opposing offensive tackles. He's forged his way into the face of signal-callers, which has halted people from reminiscing about departed pass-rushers Andre Carter and Mark Anderson.

    Progress Report Grade: A+

Dont'a Hightower, Linebacker

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    Alabama alum Dont'a Hightower has been a key cog in the reconstruction of the Patriots' defensive front. Right off the bat, the No. 25 selection in April's draft secured a starting job at strong-side linebacker and is making stops.

    Through the first four weeks, Hightower has collected 17 total tackles and a sack, as well as a fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown.

    Pushing 270 pounds, Hightower isn't the perfect coverage linebacker, but he's a thumper in run defense. Setting up shop next to Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, offenses have to be careful where they run the football.

    Still, Hightower has to become more aggressive near the goal line. Against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 3, Hightower had a hard time getting off his blocks and asserting himself. If he can learn from that experience and read offenses better, there's no telling how high his ceiling could be.

    Facing the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 30, Hightower left the game with a hamstring injury. Time will tell how serious the tweak is, but he's been making great strides this season regardless.

    Progress Report Grade: B

Tavon Wilson, Safety

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    Under-the-radar second-round pick Tavon Wilson is making a name for himself as a ball hawk.

    In four games, the Illinois defensive back has nabbed two interceptions, recovered two fumbles and totaled 11 tackles—not bad production for a guy who doesn't even start.

    According to the Boston Herald blog "The Blitz," fellow rookie Dont'a Hightower has nothing but complimentary things to say about Wilson. On Sept. 24, Hightower said:

    “He’s a great player. He’s athletic. He’s smart, fast, hard-hitting, definitely a guy behind me that I can actually depend on to be a safety, that guy back there who is going to stop (the offense) from making big plays, making big plays. I feel like he’s definitely doing everything that everybody in this organized has asked of him.”

    Wilson brings excellent depth behind Steve Gregory at free safety and is on track to be a starter before long. But for now, the 6'0", 210-pound greenhorn is a utility man who can play special teams, nickelback and both safety spots if needed.

    Following the Patriots' matchup against the Buffalo Bills, ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss analyzed Wilson's uptick in playing time:

    "After playing in just the dime last week, rookie safety Tavon Wilson took some snaps in the base defense and nickel as well. He continues to show up around the ball."

    Progress Report Grade: B+

Jake Bequette, Defensive End

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    Jake Bequette was touted as a prolific college pass-rusher at Arkansas. As a result, the Patriots snagged the experienced Razorback defensive end in the third round of this year's draft.

    Since then, however, there hasn't been much to take away from Bequette's performance. That's because the 23-year-old doesn't have much on tape.

    Being a healthy game-day inactive is obviously not what Bequette had in mind, yet it's all part of the Pats' long-term plan for him.

    According to WEEI.com's Christopher Price, Bequette and some other rookies may "essentially be taking a redshirt season, getting used to life in the NFL as a rookie."

    Bequette was active against the Buffalo Bills in Week 4, but he left the sidelines for just five defensive snaps during the final two series, according to ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss.

    Progress Report Grade: C-

Nate Ebner, Safety

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    From rugby player to Ohio State walk-on to NFL draft pick, Nate Ebner's journey is like no other.

    As a sixth-round pick with raw skills, few expected Ebner to even make New England's final roster. Yet his special-teams prowess carved him a role on the squad.

    He may not be suited for work at safety right now, but Ebner is certainly suited for special teams. Due to his grit, the 6'0", 210-pound gunner has played in all four games and made two tackles.

    Via ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss, even head coach Bill Belichick had nice things to say about pick No. 197:

    "Instinctively, he kind of has a nose for the ball [and understands] leverage, and how to play off blockers and read the quarterback," Belichick said. "It's not perfect, but he has a little bit of a knack for that. He sees other things around him and has a way of putting it together."

    For a guy whose still learning the game of football, Ebner seems to be keeping up with the program.

    Progress Report Grade: C

Alfonzo Dennard, Cornerback

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    As far as seventh-rounders are concerned, Alfonzo Dennard is a unique one.

    Projected as an top-round cornerback out of Nebraska, Dennard battled untimely legal troubles before April's draft. His stock dropped as a side effect, and the Patriots were the beneficiary.

    However, Dennard has yet to play in a regular-season game. According to ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss, the stout defensive back has been nursing a hamstring injury since training camp.

    Nonetheless, if New England's brass didn't think he had what it takes, Dennard wouldn't still be on the team.

    Progress Report Grade: Incomplete

Brandon Bolden, Running Back

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    A dark-horse candidate since he was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss, tailback Brandon Bolden has beaten the odds.

    The downhill runner seized a roster spot due to his versatility showcased during the preseason. Since then, he has earned his share of carries out of the backfield.

    Often compared to fellow Rebel BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Bolden certainly has his own skill set. He too is 5'11" and roughly 220 pounds, but he's proven to be more of a pass-catching presence than Green-Ellis was with the Patriots.

    In the first few games of his NFL career, Bolden has played some special teams, but that's certainly not all he's done.

    Heading into Week 4, Bolden had seven carries for 15 yards and a touchdown to his name. Against the Buffalo Bills, however, the Patriots unleashed the ground-and-pound running game. Bolden ran with an agenda, totaling 137 rushing yards and a touchdown on 16 carries.

    Not many people could have predicted what Bolden has done so far in New England.

    Progress Report Grade: B+

Justin Francis, Defensive End

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    Undrafted defensive end Justin Francis outlasted veteran defensive linemen Jonathan Fanene and Marcus Harrison to make the 53-man roster.

    Now, Francis has to dig even deeper to claim some playing time.

    Through the first four games, the Rutgers Scarlet Knight hasn't played a down. Yet that's because the Patriots have many options coming off the edge, including Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham and Trevor Scott.

    It should also be noted that Francis has been limited in practice because of an ankle injury, per ESPNBoston.com's Mike Rodak. Francis needs to stay off the injury report in order to stay in the team's plans.

    Progress Report Grade: Incomplete

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