The New England Patriots made a statement in April of 2012 by selecting six defenders out of their seven draft picks. The Pats' struggles on the defensive side of the ball for the past few seasons were no secret. They needed talent upgrades at a number of positions, and for the first time in Bill Belichick's tenure, they traded up not once but twice in the first round to get the players they wanted.
The 2012 Patriots have the youngest team in Belichick's reign, but the defense is extremely young with an average age of their starters at 25.
The defensive rookies have all had up and down seasons, but as the Patriots come down the stretch they'll need to rely on these rookies in the playoffs more than ever.
Let's take a look back at the seasons the Patriots defensive rookies of 2012 have had and what the Patriots will need out of them in the playoffs and beyond.
Chandler Jones (1st round, 21st overall)
Chandler Jones started the season like he was shot out of a cannon, instantly making his presence felt in his first game with a strip sack that fellow first-rounder Dont'a Hightower recovered for a touchdown. In the first eight games of the season Jones recorded six sacks, eight quarterback hits and 20 quarterback hurries.
Since the halfway point of the season, Jones' performance has declined. He missed two games to injury, and in the remaining four games that he did appear in he recorded zero sacks, zero quarterback hits and just three quarterback hurries.
And it's not just his pass rush, it's his run defense that has faltered as well. He had 16 stops before the bye and just one after it.
Now there's no question that the ankle injury Jones sustained had an impact, but even in the game before the injury, he had his worst game of the season with a -3.0 grade from Pro Football Focus.
Last weekend against the 49ers Jones saw some time at 3-4 defensive end, which doesn't maximize his talents, but he was still invisible and pulled in the second half in favor of Justin Francis.
With two weeks to go Jones is at a crossroads. Can he overcome the effects of the injury and return to his early season form? Or will it continue to derail what started off as such a promising season?
Regardless, Jones' long-term potential with the Patriots still looks high. He's the Willie McGinest "Elephant" player that the Patriots have lacked since Willie left in 2005.
Dont'a Hightower (1st round, 25th overall)
Dont'a Hightower is one rookie defender who really seems to be ascending the last two weeks. In national games, Hightower turned in back-to-back seven-tackle performances, both season-highs for him, and had 10 total stops.
Hightower has also seen his highest snap counts of the season in the last two games, playing 87.1 percent and 95.6 percent respectively. While it's a combination of factors, including game plans calling for more base defense and injuries that have slowed Brandon Spikes, Hightower is turning in his best football of the year.
Hightower was a day one starter at strong-side linebacker, and he has split time in sub packages with Spikes for most of the season. If he continues to play at this level, he could have a huge role in the playoffs, and he has the long-term potential to be a three-down linebacker next to Jerod Mayo.
There's no question that Hightower's versatility is the perfect fit for what Bill Belichick likes to do with his defense, and it appears that the sky is the limit for him. He could really make a name for himself with more great performances in nationally televised playoff games.
Tavon Wilson (2nd round, 48th overall)
Tavon Wilson was the pick that nobody saw coming. There's always one of those picks in every Patriots draft that leave even Mel Kiper Jr. stumped and Wilson was the one this year.
Wilson was drafted because he has good size and quickness to play the "Money" position in the Patriots defense. However injuries forced Wilson into a starting spot for four plus games in the middle of the season, and he actually held up pretty well.
Some will point to him misplaying the game winning touchdown that was thrown over his head in Seattle and then an almost carbon copy of the same touchdown-scoring play the following week vs. the Jets as the low points of his season. But for being thrown into the fire, Wilson has held his own.
In recent weeks, he's been reduced back to his "Money" role, and it appears that his future will be in that spot. He's a solid tackler, and he has impressive quickness for his size. The Patriots struggles covering tight ends this year have been well documented. Look for Wilson to be the player they're grooming to make a difference there.
Alfonzo Dennard (7th round, 224 overall)
Alfonzo Dennard has been one of the most pleasant surprises on the Patriots defense this season. After an altercation with police shortly before the draft dropped the 2011 Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year's stock, the Pats took a flyer on him in the seventh round and the gamble paid off.
Dennard saw his first action in Week 5 against the Broncos and was elevated to a full-time starter two weeks later against the Jets. Since then he's played nearly every meaningful defensive snap until going down with a knee injury against the 49ers.
In those games Dennard has posted above average ratings from Pro Football Focus in five of eight games. He's had six passes defended and three interceptions, including one for an 87-yard touchdown against the Colts. Opposing quarterbacks are completing just 50.8 percent of their passes thrown at Dennard.
For a team that has struggled to find and develop cornerbacks, it looks like the Pats might have a real find in Dennard. He's scrappy and physical with excellent change of direction skills.
All eyes will be on Dennard's spot this weekend against the Jaguars to see if the knee injury he suffered against the 49ers will limit him, though he was at practice on Wednesday without missing a beat. This is a good sign for his durability and toughness as he's also battled hamstring problems for a big chunk of the year.
Dennard looks to be a key contributor for any Super Bowl run the Pats might make, and he could be an outside corner they can actually build long term around.
Justin Francis (undrafted)
Undrafted free agent Justin Francis first began to catch eyes at minicamp and his versatility and explosion continued into training camp. Coming out of Rutgers, Francis was friends with Bill Belichick's son Steve, and with Steve in his first year coaching with the Patriots, the connection to New England for Francis was an obvious one.
After battling an ankle injury for September and into October, Francis made his first appearance Week 7 against the Jets where he saw just seven snaps.
Since then Francis has been inactive for just one game, which culminated last weekend against the 49ers where he saw 22 snaps and recorded three tackles and two stops. His quickness also helped force a bad snap fumble by the 49ers.
Francis' explosion off the line was evident and it looks like he is really starting to blossom within the system. The Patriots can use any and every pass-rusher they can find, so Francis' emergence is a welcome one.
Here's what Bill Belichick had to say about Francis on Wednesday:
He’s a competitive player, he works hard. He’s got some good ability and he’s, like any young player he’s learning through sometimes trial an error. Sometimes experience, sometimes the hard way. But he works hard to get better and I have a lot of respect for that. There aren’t many people that work harder than he does. He competes every day in practice, both in the classroom and out on the field to learn and improve and he’s definitely improved a lot, no question.
Jermaine Cunningham's return from suspension in Week 17 figures to eat into Francis' playing time a bit, but after what he flashed against the 49ers it wouldn't be surprising to see more of the four defensive end package the Patriots first unveiled against the Rams in the playoffs.
Once again the Pats found a player with some real potential that went undrafted.
Future Looks Bright
No one would argue that the Patriots defense has ascended to a new level this season. It's shown great promises in small stretches, but overall it's been inconsistent and that was clearly on display against the 49ers.
Still this is an extremely young defense that continues to add building blocks year after year. The Patriots dynasty defense took time to come together and peak, and this new group is just the same.
In the last three drafts the Patriots have added some promising talent including Brandon Spikes, Devin McCourty, Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love, but this 2012 class might be the one that puts the Pats over the top for many years to come.
Mike Dussault is a New England Patriots Featured Columnist, the creator/editor-in-chief of PatsPropaganda.com and co-hosts the PatsPropaganda & Frenz podcast with AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz. You can follow him on Twitter here.