|Revisiting Patriots’ rookies: Measuring overall impact of this year’s group||01.22.13 at 9:04 pm ET|
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.
|Matt Patricia on the shutout: ‘Obviously, you’re happy with the effort’||12.31.12 at 12:59 pm ET|
FOXBORO — In light of the team’s first shutout in over three years, Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia was pleased with the 28-0 result Sunday over the Dolphins. But, on Monday, he was even happier for the players.
“I think absolutely you’re always looking for improvement,” Patricia said. “Obviously you’re happy with the effort and excited for the players. They’re the ones who did all the work on the field to achieve certain goals, but certainly when you go back and look at the film, there’s a lot of things we need to do better, improve on and work on and that’s really what we’ll focus on, obviously more so than just the scoreboard there. But, you know, it was a good effort by everybody out there.
“I think guys really tried hard and did things we asked them to do and we’re pleased with that, but there are certainly some areas of improvement that you can really take a look at and say, ‘We really have to do some things better here because they just weren’t good enough.’”
The last time the Patriots blanked an opponent was Oct. 18, 2009 – the 59-0 thrashing of the Titans at Gillette. A lot has been said and written about the lack of defense in the three seasons since. But the team has turned over most of the defensive roster since then, with the notable exception of Vince Wilfork. Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower have become household names.
But Sunday was also a coming out party for rookie defensive lineman Justin Francis, who had a career-best three sacks.
“Coach [Bill Belichick] hit it right on the head as far as the great thing about what we do is obviously a team effort,” Patricia said. “When you look at the bottom line stats and you see one particular player with high numbers, I don’t really think that tells the whole story. If you take a good look at the game and what actually happened during a particular play, you’ll see that there’s a lot of other factors that contribute to maybe a player making a play on that particular situation. You can single out anybody with stat numbers yesterday but if you take a look at the group effort, it was really what we were looking for.
“You can certainly see situations where the guys in coverage in those situations did a really excellent job to allow the pass rush time to get to the quarterback and then you can see situations where the pass rush was able to get to the quarterback, which allowed the cover guys to not have to cover as long. So, I really think it was a good, collaborative effort, along with the same thing for the run game, where one guy may be making a particular tackle or a particular play, but what you don’t see is the other guy that has three guys on him at one time [and is] eating up a bunch of blockers [which] frees up another player. That’s the beauty of the sport and that’s really what we strive for in a team effort so I think that’s what we’re talking about when we have successful plays like that, where we get a good particular play but really there’s a lot of other factors that go into it.” Read the rest of this entry »
|Bill Belichick: Jermaine Cunningham will have some ‘catching up’ to do||12.26.12 at 4:26 pm ET|
FOXBORO — Defensive end Jermaine Cunningham returned to Patriots practice on Wednesday and will be eligible to return to game action this Sunday against Miami in the regular season finale. But Bill Belichick made it clear Wednesday that his return to the starting lineup is hardly automatic.
Cunningham was suspended Nov. 26 for four games by the NFL for violation of the league’s performance enhancing drug policy. At the time of his suspension, Cunningham was coming on stronger than anyone along the defensive line not named Vince Wilfork. He had six tackles against the Jets on Thanksgiving, with 2.5 sacks and six quarterback hits in 11 games before his league-mandated break.
“I think any time a player comes back after an absence for awhile – whatever the reasons are don’t matter – that there’s a combination of catching up mentally to what’s going on but also catching up from a technique standpoint and also communication and reaction,” Belichick said.
“Really, no matter how much a player runs around a track or does situps or whatever, it’s not the same as when the other 21 guys are out there hearing plays called, reacting to what happens on the other side of the play, communicating, making adjustments with your teammates. There’s just no way to do that other than to do it. I think that’s important for any player that’s coming back after missing some time, regardless what the reasons are. That’s definitely something that they need to do and they need to do it with their teammates. It’s something their teammates need to have happen as well as the individual player who wasn’t there himself. All that is part of it.”
Certainly, the bright side of the Cunningham suspension has the increased experience of defensive ends Justin Francis and Trevor Scott, especially Francis, an undrafted rookie out of Rutgers. Francis got experience he otherwise likely would not have seen on the field.
“It’s certainly a positive for some of the players who get those opportunities,” Belichick said. “If they can take advantage of them and use that opportunity to enhance their role or show through their performance that they’re ready to handle more responsibility, it’s a good thing for them and ultimately it can be a good thing for the team to be able to actually see those guys do it, see those guys improve, watch them get more reps in practice and in the games and get more confidence in them and know that their execution level is higher from that. I’d say that’s accurate.
Cunningham’s return at Wednesday’s walk-through was part of perfect attendance inside Dana-Farber Field House as the team worked out without pads and helmets.
|Justin Francis: ‘I like getting after the quarterback’||11.29.12 at 2:02 pm ET|
FOXBORO — In the wake of the four-game suspension for Patriots defensive end Jermaine Cunningham, the first name mentioned as a possible replacement was veteran Trevor Scott. And for good reason. The 28-year-old Scott has NFL experience and was brought in to provide the just the kind of depth the Patriots need right now.
But do not overlook Justin Francis.
He is yet another product of the Greg Schiano Rutgers program on the roster. The 23-year-old possesses the type of explosive speed (4.9 in the 40) – if undersized (6-foot-4, 270 lbs.) – the Patriots were looking for when they signed him as an undrafted free agent in the spring. The Patriots projected Francis as a depth guy on the outside and he has made big strides in his rookie year.
He has moved ahead of third-round pick Jake Bequette on the depth chart, as Bequette has played in just two games this season while Francis has appeared in five, including five of the last six games for the Patriots.
What makes him such an attractive option to the Patriots as a potential replacement to the pass-rushing Cunningham?
“I like getting after the quarterback,” Francis said. “Wherever coach wants me to play, I’m going play. If it’s quarterback, it’s quarterback. If it’s cornerback, it’s cornerback but I don’t think I’ll be playing any of those positions. Whatever coach wants me to play, and however I can get to the quarterback is all that matters to me.”
Francis was activated for the Denver game on Oct. 7 but did not play. He made his NFL debut the next week and played in four straight games for the Patriots, as the team looked to give Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love and Chandler Jones rest.
“It’s somewhat of a climbing [process], been working pretty hard this whole time and trying to take it a day at a time and follow after the guys I have to follow after. I’m just trying to do the best thing for me and the team.”
“Every day is an opportunity to get better and anything can happen. The way I take it is you have to be prepared, prepared for whatever happens. By being prepared, you’re going to help the team. That’s all I’m doing right now, listening to Vince, listening to coach and listen to my position coach and listen to all the older guys who are guiding me along the way.”
Francis is most appreciative of the family atmosphere he’s been brought into and is thriving in.
“It’s been good,” Francis said. “We’ve grown a pretty good bond. We’ve spent time outside the stadium and a helluva lot of time in here. The bond is growing and we’re getting tighter as a unit. That’s all you can really hope for and appreciate.”
|Patriots rookie Justin Francis gets a chance to renew his friendship with Steve Belichick||05.12.12 at 12:52 pm ET|
FOXBORO — Justin Francis recalls his first meeting with the Belichick family: It was his sophomore year at Rutgers, and he was sitting next to Steve Belichick in a math class.
“Yo, you’re coach Belichick’s son,” Francis said to the son of the Patriots’ head coach. “I suck at math, so don’t judge me, all right?
The two soon struck up a friendship, one that deepened shortly after Steve Belichick walked on the Rutgers team as a long snapper. He and Francis became teammates, and now, the two have been able to extend their relationship: this spring, Francis was signed by the Patriots as an undrafted free agent, while Steve was added to the New England coaching staff as an assistant.
“It’s been a good little journey,” Francis said Saturday before practice at Gillette Stadium. “Steve has been a great friend for me for quite some time.”
Francis said there are “a lot of similarities” between the father and son, and it’s been good having a familiar face on the coaching staff.
“It’s kind of weird,” looking at the younger Belichick as a coach instead of a teammate. “But like I said, he’s a good friend. I know he’s never going to direct me down the wrong path. I take that and I keep that. I’ll always respect him. I respect his job. I respect him as a friend as well.
“We haven’t really sat down and got into anything like that. He’ll give me a wink and keep my spirits up — ‘Hey, let’s work.’ And I’ll tell him and give him a nod like, ‘Let’s work.’ Just keeping my spirits up. I’m keeping his spirits up. We know we’re going to go for a tit-for-tat thing.”
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|A closer look at the seven rookies the Patriots signed on Thursday||05.10.12 at 7:58 pm ET|
The Patriots announced the addition of seven rookie free agents on Thursday who will take part in rookie minicamp this weekend at Gillette Stadium. Here’s a thumbnail look at each one of them:
Running back Brandon Bolden, Mississippi: The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Bolden finished his collegiate career ranked second in school history in both total touchdowns scored (33) and rushing touchdowns (27), third in all-purpose yards (3,681) and fourth in rushing yards (2,604).
Defensive lineman Marcus Forston, Miami: The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Forston was injury-free during his freshman season at Miami, finishing with 17 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and three quarterback sacks. After that, it was all downhill. His 2009 season was cut short due to an ankle injury, while his 2011 season, which began with a four-game suspension due to NCAA infractions, ended after he underwent surgery for a torn MCL. He also had shoulder surgery prior to the start of the 2010 season, but he still played in 13 games with 12 starts that year, and registered 37 total tackles, 3.0 sacks and one interception.
Defensive lineman Justin Francis, Rutgers: The 6-foot-3, 270-pounder posted very good numbers over the course of his college career (106 tackles, 22 tackles for loss and 12 sacks), culminating with 60 total tackles, 5.5 sacks, one fumble recovery, one interception and five passes defensed as a senior.
Tight end Brad Herman, Iowa: The 6-foot-5, 253-pounder had his best season as a senior, finishing with eight catches for 92 yards and a touchdown in 12 games (including three starts). He’s described by Pro Football Weekly as having “intriguing measurables, good straight-line speed and outstanding leaping ability.”
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2013 PATRIOTS DRAFT PICKS
2013 NFL DRAFT
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