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Revisiting Patriots’ rookies: Measuring overall impact of this year’s group

01.22.13 at 9:04 pm ET
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Chandler Jones was part of an important rookie class for the Patriots. (AP)

Chandler Jones was part of an important rookie class for the Patriots. (AP)

This year’s group of Patriots’ rookies collectively made more of an impact in their first season than any other group of first-year players since the 2003 class. (While the 2010 draft class will likely have a greater long-term impact, the 2012 and 2003 groups were asked to do more in their first full season in the NFL — for more on that breakdown, check out the comparison I did on each draft class here.) With their first season now done, let’s take a player-by-player look at how each one of them did.

Chandler Jones: The 6-foot-5, 220-pound defensive end — the first of two first-round picks made by the Patriots last spring — started out on a great note. With eight games in the books, the Syracuse product was leading the team with six sacks (including two in a loss to the Seahawks) and 11 quarterback hits. He also had three forced fumbles (including one in the first quarter of his first game as a professional), and was named AFC Rookie of the Month and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for September. (We wrote about him as a possible candidate for the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award because of his fast start.) But over the last eight regular-season games, Jones had no sacks, no forced fumbles and one quarterback hit. A sizable portion of that was likely due to an ankle injury he suffered in November that left him on the shelf for a stretch, and probably caused a dip in his play when he did return. (While he wasn’t overwhelming statistically in the regular-season finale against Miami, he did play very well against the Dolphins, looking aggressive while doing a good job setting the edge.) He indicated Monday that he could be facing offseason surgery for his ankle issues.

Dont’a Hightower: After being slowed by a hamstring problem in September and October, the Alabama product became a steady and dependable member of New England defense, and ended his rookie season with 75 tackles (51 solo), four sacks, nine quarterback hits and three passes defensed. He managed to grow into a complimentary piece at linebacker, alongside veterans Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes. No reason to think that the 6-foot-2, 270-pound defender won’t be a consistent presence at linebacker for the Patriots for years to come.

Tavon Wilson: The 6-foot, 210-pounder out of Illinois started strong, with four interceptions in his first 10 games, as well as a 10-tackle performance in an October win over Denver that likely marked the high-water mark of the season for the defensive back, who certainly surpassed the expectations of many who initially called him a second-round reach. However, the acquisition of Aqib Talib affected his playing time maybe more than anyone else — the trade for Talib meant the Patriots moved Devin McCourty from corner to safety, and left Wilson on the sidelines. (Wilson was still part of an occasional rotation in sub packages, but his overall snap count drastically decreased.) Overall, he finished the regular-season with 48 tackles (32 solo), but one of the most impressive things you can say about Wilson and what he brought to the field was a nose for the ball: in addition to his four picks, he had six passes defensed and a pair of fumble recoveries.

Jake Bequette: Almost one relatively high draft pick takes a redshirt year every season, and this year, it was Bequette. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive end out of Arkansas has been inactive for most of the season — the third-rounder played in three games this season but didn’t register any stats. Instead, he sat and watched and learned about life at the NFL level while veterans like Rob Ninkovich, Trevor Scott and Jermaine Cunningham (as well as other youngsters like Jones and Justin Francis) saw time in front of him.

Nate Ebner: The Ohio State product was billed as a special-teams star coming out of college, and he did a good job living up to the hype, finishing the year second on the team in special teams tackles with 17 (behind special teams captain Matthew Slater) and becoming a core part of New England’s special teams unit. He was able to occasionally provide some depth over the course of the season at safety, but he compares favorably to Slater in that he probably won’t get much playing time on either offense or defense, but the 6-foot, 210-pounder will likely be a special teams fixture for years to come, provided he stays healthy.

Alfonzo Dennard: Based on his progression — particularly if you take into account where he was in camp and where he ended the season — you could make a case for Dennard being New England’s Rookie of the Year. The seventh-round pick out of Nebraska, who slipped to the seventh round because of reported character concerns (he was accused of punching a police officer the week before the draft) was a real find for the Patriots. After struggling with hamstring problems over the summer and the start of the season, the 5-foot-10, 200-pounder progressed nicely, and moved into a starting role roughly halfway through the season. He ended the year as one of New England’s starting corners, and posted 35 tackles (33 solo), to go along with three picks and seven passes defensed. There were times where he looked an awful lot like a rookie, but when you examine the complete body of work over the season, it was as good a rookie year as any Patriots defensive back has had in a long time.

Jeremy Ebert: The 5-foot-11, 200-pound wide receiver — the only offensive player taken in the draft by the Patriots — was cut shortly before the start of the season, but brought back soon after as part of the practice squad.

In addition, the Patriots had the following non-draft rookies on the roster: running backs Brandon Bolden and Jeff Demps; tight end Brad Herman; offensive lineman Markus Zusevics; and defensive end Justin Francis. Of this group, the two that really stood out were Bolden and Francis — Bolden finished the season with 274 rushing yards, 137 of which came in a September win over the Bills. (He was later suspended four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, and never managed to get back on track). As for Francis, he saw some meaningful snaps as the season went on, and finished the year with 10 tackles (nine solo) and three sacks in the regular-season finale against the Dolphins. Demps, Herman and Zusevics spent all or most of the season inactive because of injury.

Read More: Alfonzo Dennard, Brad Herman, Brandon Bolden, chandler jones
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