New England Patriots Links 7/20/12 - Rookies' Time To Battle For Position

Chandler Jones, shown with WR Jeremy Ebert who is battling a hamstring injury, is one of several intriguing rookies to keep an eye on in camp.

Jeff Howe superlatively spotlights the Patriots rookie class as they prepare for their first season in the NFL.

Immediate Impact: Because of his versatility, linebacker Dont’a Hightower figures to get plenty of opportunities to get on the field for the defense. Based on his skillset and deployment for the Alabama defense, Hightower looks as though he could play strongside linebacker in the 4-3, anywhere in the 3-4 and alongside Jerod Mayo in the nickel. Hightower is a prototypical inside linebacker, but he has the versatility to rush the passer off the edge, both standing up and with his hand in the dirt (or FieldTurf, if you want to be technical). Anyway, the Patriots ran into trouble last year when Mayo and Brandon Spikes struggled with injuries, so Hightower could play a key role on the defense in a few different situations right away.

Most Intriguing: It’s amazing that Google’s New England branch didn’t crash after the Patriots selected safety Tavon Wilson in the second round. And actually, when an older story of Wilson surfaced soon after the pick, that local Illinois paper’s website crashed due to an overload of traffic. Point is, few knew anything about Wilson. He’s another versatile player who can play both safety spots, and he can also line up in the slot, which makes him a candidate to earn playing time in sub packages. But when camp starts, plenty of people will watch Wilson to see what he’s all about. (... More...)

Christopher Price notes it wasn’t a great day for the Patriots’ rookie class, and presents four questions that could be answered this camp.

What exactly do the Patriots have in Alfonzo Dennard? Dennard is a fascinating case: As a collegian, he showed moments of real brilliance as a corner at Nebraska (check out the library of clips on YouTube), certainly enough to have him projected as a mid- to early-round pick. But there’s also enough baggage there -- including that infamous incident with a police officer outside a Nebraska bar that likely caused his stock to drop even more and an ejection from he Capital One Bowl -- that you can understand why teams shied away from him. There are some shifting parts in the New England secondary, and while he won’t be asked to be an every down contributor as a rookie, he will have a chance to play as a rookie if he does well in camp and in the preseason. After a tumultuous offseason, it’s about all he could hope for at this point.

Which UDFA will become this year’s Dane Fletcher? Every year, there’s one undrafted free agent who beats the odds and manages to make the final 53-man roster. A couple of years ago, that was Fletcher, who emerged from the relative obscurity of Montana State in 2010 to become a part of New England’s regular rotation at linebacker, even starting five games last season. Based on what we saw this spring, it appears that defensive lineman Justin Francis and offensive lineman Jeremiah Warren had the best shot, even after they were part of a group that failed their physicals on Thursday. In spring camps, Francis showed good burst and did not appear overwhelmed. As for Warren, we always judge how well a young offensive lineman is doing by how often he gets yelled at by offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, and while he was occasionally put on blast by the veteran coach, he managed to hold his own. (...More...)

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