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The Hot List: Best opening acts by Patriots rookies

09.12.12 at 12:42 am ET
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The performance of rookies Chandler Jones, Dont’€™a Hightower and Tavon Wilson in the season-opener against the Titans on Sunday got us to thinking: What were some of the best performances by Patriots first-year players in openers? And so this edition of ‘€œThe Hot List’€ looks at the five best debuts by New England rookies.

It’€™s measured solely on first impressions a rookie makes in his initial game as a professional. (It has to be with the Patriots.) As a result, some of the most impressive members of the franchise, like Tom Brady (who technically became a star in his second season) and Wes Welker (who broke into the league with the Chargers and Dolphins before signing with the Patriots) are ineligible. With that understood — and with some help from our friends on Twitter — here’€™s a look at New England’€™s five favorite rookie debuts:

5. Defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’€™a Hightower: Sept. 9, 2012, vs. Titans – The two rookies provided the oomph for a New England defense that carried the day in a 34-13 win over the Titans. Jones had five tackles (three solo) and a strip sack of Titans quarterback Jake Locker in the first half, his first as a pro. Hightower, who added five tackles (four solo) of his own, was the beneficiary of Jones’€™ forced fumble, coming away with the ball and rumbling into the end zone from six yards out for his first touchdown as a pro. (Defensive back Tavon Wilson also gets some credit for his work — he picked off one Locker pass in the end zone, and added a pair of passes defensed in the win.)

4. Quarterback Drew Bledsoe: Sept. 5, 1993, vs. Bills – We picked this one not so much for Bledsoe’€™s stat line in the game — a pedestrian 14-for-30 for 148 yards and two touchdowns — but for what it represents. The dawning of the Bledsoe/Bill Parcells era represented a fresh start for the Patriots. Even though they were beaten that afternoon by the Bills in Buffalo, 38-14 (New England was within three in the third quarter when Bledsoe hit Greg McMutry on a 2-yard pass to make it 17-14, but would get no closer), it kickstarted a run of relevance that has never ended. Bledsoe would go on to play nine seasons in New England and reach the Super Bowl twice.

3. Wide receiver Deion Branch: Sept. 9, 2002, vs. Steelers – The first regular-season game in Gillette Stadium history was a fundamental beatdown of the Steelers, 30-14. In that one, Branch tied for the team lead in catches with six, but led the way with 83 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown pass from Brady midway through the third quarter that made the score 24-7. Branch would go on to post 43 catches for 489 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie. (His effort just edges out Terry Glenn‘€™s 1996 debut against the Bills when he had six catches for 76 yards and one touchdown.)

2. Linebacker Jerod Mayo: Sept. 7, 2008, vs. Chiefs – On an afternoon remembered more for Brady’€™s season-ending injury more than anything else, Mayo made his first start as a pro and finished with six tackles. However, it was the beginning of a truly great rookie year. He played every down on defense as a rookie and put together such an impressive first year (he finished with 128 tackles), he got all but one vote for defensive rookie of the year.

1. Running back Curtis Martin: Sept. 3, 1995, vs. Browns – The future Hall of Famer rushed for 102 yards on 19 carries in his pro debut, including a one-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that proved to be the difference in a 17-14 victory over Cleveland. It was not only Martin’€™s first game as a pro, it was his first game playing for Parcells, and it was the start of a terrific football friendship. (‘€œAs far as my football career, I consider him my father figure and mentor,’€ Martin said last February.) After the game, however, Parcells cautioned reporters when asked about Martin’€™s performance: ‘€œDon’€™t go putting him in Canton yet.’€

Just missed the cut: offensive lineman Nate Solder (tied for team lead with 80 snaps at right tackle against the Dolphins on Sept. 12, 2011); running back Laurence Maroney (17 carries, 86 yards on Sept. 10, 2006, against Buffalo); running back Robert Edwards (13 carries, 50 yards, one touchdown against the Broncos on Sept. 7, 1998); tight ends Rob Gronkowski (a 1-yard touchdown catch against the Bengals on Sept. 12, 2010) and Aaron Hernandez (one catch for 45 yards in the same game); wide receiver Terry Glenn (six catches, 76 yards, one touchdown on Sept. 8, 1996 against Buffalo).

Read More: chandler jones, Curtis Martin, Dont'a Hightower, Drew Bledsoe
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