Patriots 2012 Draft Review
Entering the 2012 NFL draft, the New England Patriots were coming of a season in which they made it to the Super Bowl but were ranked next to last in yardage allowed defensively. In free agency following the 2011 season the Patriots signed players such as Jonathan Fanene, Trevor Scott and Steve Gregory who were expected to improve the defense but also lost important contributors in Mark Anderson and Andre Carter. It didn't take a master's degree to figure out that if the Patriots defense was going to improve in 2012, selecting players in the draft who could make a difference from day one was crucial. When draft day came around in April, the Patriots took an un-Patriotically aggressive approach to the draft. In the first round alone, the Patriots made trades with the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos to move down the draft board to insure that they got defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Don't'a Hightower. The defensive focus continued throughout the rest of the draft as each of the Patriots next four selections were spent on the defensive side of the ball. Only the seventh round selection of Northwestern wide receiver Jeremy Ebert kept the Patriots draft from being a complete defensive sweep. This article will look at the contributions that each of those draft selections, as well as undrafted rookies signed following the draft, have made in this season and also potentially in future seasons.
DE Chandler Jones (R 1. P 21) Syracuse
Stat Line: 14 games, 13 starts - 45 tackles - 6 sacks - 5 pass defensed - 3 forced fumbles
With the first Patriots selection of the 2012 draft, Pats fans after agonizing years of seeing the Patriots refuse to pull the trigger on pass rushers in the first round of the draft, finally got the pick they wanted in the selection of big name pass rusher Chandler Jones. Jones started the season with a bang, accumulating five sacks and three forced fumbles in the first six games. He had the look of being a strong contender to win defensive rookie of the year before injuries dampened his production in the second half of the season. He did finish the season strong, however, and appears to be a long term fixture at the defensive end spot for the Patriots. If he can stay consistently healthy, continue to gain strength, and build on his first year experience, there is nothing stopping Jones from being one of the top pass rushers in the AFC.
LB Don't'a Hightower (R 1. P 25) Alabama
Stat Line: 14 games, 13 starts - 60 tackles - 4 sacks - 1 fumble recovery for TD
As with the Jones selection, the Patriots traded picks away to move up in the 2012 draft to ensure that they could select Hightower. So far the move appears to be paying off. Hightower was an important contributor in the Patriots defensive scheme in 2012 and seemed to seamlessly blend into the linebacker unit from game one of the season. He is a heavier linebacker (aprox. 270 lbs), but he still was decent in pass coverage. In games vs. Miami, New York Jets, and Jacksonville he came up with huge sacks in key fourth quarter situations, displaying a Willie McGinest like ability to make plays in turning point type situations.
S Tavon Wilson (R 2. P 48) Illinois
Stat Line: 16 games, 4 starts - 41 tackles - 4 ints - 6 pass defensed
The selection of Wilson in the second round came as a huge surprise for pretty much everyone outside of the 1 Patriots Place, Foxboro, Massachusetts. Even those who lived by the creed of "in Bill we trust" had a hard time justifying the pick when many media outlets and scouts had deemed Wilson, who was not even invited to the 2012 NFL combine, either as a late round selection or undrafted pickup. The Patriots clearly had a different opinion about Wilson. In the 2012 season, he appeared in all 16 games, had a key role in defensive sub-packages, and filled in as a starter when injuries forced either Patrick Chung or Steven Gregory out of the lineup. He showed a tendency, particularly early in the season, to be a ball hawk with four interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Unfortunately, the most enduring image of the 2012 season for Wilson was in week six when he let Seattle wide receiver Sidney Rice run by him for a game winning 46 yard touchdown reception. Wilson's play appeared to tighten up for the remainder of the season, however, and although he may not be ready to be a full time starter, his 2012 campaign hinted at his potential to be groomed into that role.
DE/OLB Jake Bequette (R 3. P 90) Arkansas
Stat Line: 3 games - healthy inactive for 13 games
Bequette was unable to break into the lineup in 2012 and was even bypassed by undrafted rookie Justin Francis for a place on the active roster. He was a healthy inactive for thirteen games and in the three games he suited up for he did not accumulate any stats. It's much too early to stick a fork in his selection and call it a bust, but the 2012 season also did not display any promise that he will have a role in the future with the Patriots. OLB/DE Trevor Scott, a 2012 Pats free agent signing, has a similar body type to Bequette and his NFL experience may have played a role in Bequette riding the bench in 2012. Bequette's 2012 offseason progression or lack thereof will be an enormous factor in determining his future with the Patriots.
S Nate Ebner (R 6. P 197) Ohio State
Stat Line: 15 games - 14 tackles- played on all four special teams units
Like Wilson, Ebner was a surprise pick who many did not expected to even be drafted. The Patriots used Ebner primarily on special teams with bit roles at safety at times. In the week two game vs. Arizona he whiffed on a block, allowing a punt to be block for a safety. Despite the mistake, he stayed out of the Bill Belichick doghouse and contributed throughout the season on all four special teams units.
CB Alfonzo Dennard (R 7. P 224) Nebraska
Stat Line: 10 games - 7 starts - 35 tackles - 3 ints (1 TD) - 7 pass defensed - 1 forced fumble
If the current pace holds, Dennard may eventually be seen as the best value pick of the 2012 NFL draft. Dennard was projected to be as high as a second round pick before legal issues immediately prior to the draft scared off potential suitors until the Patriots selected him in the seventh round. He sat on the bench early in the season before getting playing time and ultimately the role of starting cornerback in week seven vs. the New York Jets. He showed good instincts in coverage and also made QB's pay for targeting him with three interceptions including one vs. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck which he took back 87 yards for a touchdown. He continued to play well until a hamstring injury vs. the 49ers forced him to miss the last two games of the regular season. His 2012 season sample offers hope that he could become a consistent starter at a cornerback position in which the Patriots (with the exception of perhaps Devin McCourty in 2010) have a limited recent success drafting.
WR Jeremy Ebert (R 7. P 235) Northwestern
Stat Line: Spent time on both the Patriots and Eagles practice squads in the 2012 season.
The chances of Ebert even making the team with a deep roster at the wide receiver position entering training camp were highly doubtful. He had enough potential and production in his college career at Northwestern to peak the Patriots interest to spend a seventh round pick on him but unless he exploded in training camp or the preseason (which he did not) he never had a prayer of making the team. After the Patriots released him following training camp, the Eagles took a look at him by signing him to their practice squad but later released him. At best, he is a fringe NFL prospect moving into the offseason and it is highly doubtful that he will be a part of the Patriots 2013 plans.
RB Brandon Bolden - Ole Miss
Stat Line: 10 games - was suspended 4 games for violating NFL's PED policy
The Patriots and Bolden connection seemed to be a seamless one as he filled the undrafted running back from Ole Miss spot on the roster vacated by BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Like Green-Ellis, Bolden had a productive college career at Ole Miss but was skipped on in the draft. Bolden's performance in training camp and preseason impressed Patriots coaches enough to give him a place on the roster. He got snaps as early as week one and in the fourth game of the season vs. Buffalo he rushed for 137 yards and a touchdown. He got injured just two weeks following his big game and after missing time with that injury, he was suspended for four weeks for violating the NFL drug policy. He returned in week fourteen and played the remainder of the season in a very limited role. Bolden's tough running style and surprising speed give him great value to the Patriots as a low cost but productive option at running back. If starter Steven Ridley were to suffer an injury at any point, Bolden's value would increase exponentially since both Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen are smaller scat-back type runners.
DL Justin Francis - Rutgers
Stat Line: 10 games - 10 tackles - 3 sacks
Like Bolden, Francis earned his way onto the team thru his production in camps and preseason. He was activated in week six of the season and earned increasing playing time as a backup defensive lineman as the season progressed. He had a breakout game in week seventeen vs. the Miami Dolphins in which he sacked Ryan Tannehill three times. Even prior to his dominating week 17 performance, in his limited opportunities he was getting good pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Francis at 6-4, 270 pounds is smaller than the traditional Patriots defensive lineman body type, but his quickness and ability to use his leverage properly has carved him a role on the roster that may even be more expanded in the future.
Overall Draft Grade: A
The early results from the 2012 regular season for the Patriots rookie class appear to be golden so far. Both the Jones and Hightower played significant time as starters and had an impact right away. The jury is still out on Wilson but so far the early signs have been more positive than negative. Ebner was a contributor on special teams, and for a sixth round pick, everything you could expect. Dennard looks like he might be a steal in the seventh round and a special player for the Patriots in upcoming seasons. The signings of Brandon Bolden and Justin Francis as UDFA's also proved to be key pickups that have bolstered the depth at running back and on the defensive line.
The biggest, and only real, disappointment of the draft had to be third round pick Jake Bequette. More than a few NFL analysis expected Bequette to have a role in the Patriots defense in 2012 and it was a surprise to see him fail to break into the lineup after an uneventful training camp and preseason. When put in perspective, though, the lack of payoff from the selection should really not come as a surprise. Outside of the first round, the Patriots under Bill Belichick have had their struggles drafting impact defensive linemen/outside linebackers. The list of disappointments/non impact players includes Markell Carter (2011, sixth round), Jermaine Cunningham (2010, second round), Ron Brace (2009, second round), Shawn Crable (2008, third round) Kareem Brown (2007, fourth round), Marguise Hill (2004, second round), and one time folk hero Dan Klecko (2003, fourth round). Ironically, with the notable exception of Jarvis Green (2002, fourth round) most of the success that the Patriots have had outside of the first round has come either in the sixth or seventh rounds. Guys such as Brandon Deaderick (2010, seventh round), Myron Pryor (2009, sixth round), Tully Banta-Cain (2003, seventh round) and Jeremy Mincey (2006, sixth round, Florida) who was actually cut by the Patriots following the 2006 preseason but has since become an impact player with the Jaguars, have provided good value production wise for the spots at which they were selected. With that in mind, if Bequette fails to ever make an impact, he would simply be following a path well blazed by his predecessors.
No matter how the Bequette pick pans out, the first year production the class of 2012 strongly indicates that 2012 draft was a tremendous success for the Patriots. The Patriots entered the draft with a plan to get younger and better on defense and they accomplished just that. The infusion of young talent on a roster is vital to long term success in the NFL and in a year that saw the emergence of more than a few budding super stars, the Patriots draft class still stands out for its overall success across the board from rounds one to seven.