Jones, Hightower lead strong 2012 class

May, 25, 2013
5/25/13
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Chandler Jones and Justin FrancisJim Rogash/Getty ImagesFirst-rounder Chandler Jones impressed as a rookie, as did Justin Francis, who went undrafted.
While there has been no shortage of instant impact rookies in the NFL in recent seasons, there are others who take time to transition into the pro game from the college level. To that point, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has said in the past that many players experience the greatest development during their NFL careers between their rookie and sophomore seasons.

In 2012, the Patriots drafted seven rookies in total, six of whom remain on the active roster (Jeremy Ebert, a seventh-round receiver from Northwestern, recently signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars). Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower, the team's pair of first-rounders in 2012, highlighted the class, as they each became immediate starters and debuted in style by combining for a strip sack and fumble return for a touchdown in a Week 1 win in Tennessee. Overall, the class provided strong results, as those two appear to be defensive cornerstones for the future with other promising members of the class, as well.

Here's an overview of each of the 2012 drafted rookies, with a look at what 2013 could hold for each.

Defensive end Chandler Jones
2012 stats: 45 tackles, six sacks, three forced fumbles
2013 outlook: Pencil in Jones as a starter on the defensive line, and a good one at that. The question will be how much progress Jones can make to build off of what early in the season looked to be a defensive rookie of the year quality season. After starting the season off with six sacks in eight games, Jones failed to register a sack in his final eight contests (playoffs included). He was billed by some as a draft prospect who would need time to develop into an NFL standout, but it was easy to see why the Patriots targeted Jones in the first round. If he can emerge as a consistent pass-rusher, he'll add a new dynamic to the front seven.

[+] EnlargeDont'a Hightower
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceDont'a Hightower seems primed to play a key defensive role for seasons to come.
Linebacker Dont'a Hightower
2012 stats: 60 tackles, four sacks
2013 outlook: Like Jones, it seems like a fair bet to pencil Hightower in as a starter in the Patriots' base defense. He was a consistent presence as a strongside linebacker as a rookie, and he should provide more of the same this season. Hightower was a ready-made prospect coming out of Alabama and showed himself capable of taking on a number of assignments. By all accounts, the staff is high on him, and he could be a starter alongside Jerod Mayo for a long time. What will be most interesting regarding Hightower is what role -- if any -- he plays on sub defense. He was removed from the unit late in the 2012 season in favor of Brandon Spikes.

Safety Tavon Wilson
2012 stats: 41 tackles, four interceptions
2013 outlook: Which Wilson will the Patriots see in 2013? The one who was a virtual starter early in his rookie season and produced in the back end of the secondary, or the one who had coverage breakdowns and later was relegated to a sub defensive back role? The team's hope is the former, and Wilson has a terrific set of mentors at his position to learn from in Adrian Wilson, Steve Gregory and Devin McCourty. With McCourty entrenched as a starter on one side, Wilson might have to fight for reps at strong safety. He projects to play extensively on special teams again in 2013.

Defensive end Jake Bequette
No stats accumulated
2013 outlook: Seems a little crazy to suggest a guy who hardly saw the field in 2012 could be a factor in 2013, right? Well, don't be entirely surprised if Bequette does earn time as a player who can be utilized in a role comparable to Rob Ninkovich's in the Patriots' defense. We saw the two working together during the individual drill portion of Tuesday's OTA, and the reality of life in the NFL is some rookies need a "redshirt" season to develop. Bequette might not develop into a starter this season, but he should have a chance to compete for reps at defensive end and might fall into the category of players that Belichick alluded to who undergo substantial growth in between seasons one and two.

Safety Nate Ebner
2012 stats: 14 tackles
2013 outlook: The unheralded Ohio State product was believed to be a player who could impact the special teams immediately, and that's what Ebner proved to be. He's the kind of guy who can both cover kicks and hold up as a blocker. He flashed ball skills throughout training camp as a safety, but the position is deep again in 2013. Even if Ebner continues to carve out a niche on special teams (akin to the defensive player version of Matthew Slater), that's a worthy investment in the sixth round.

Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard
2012 stats: 35 tackles, three interceptions
2013 outlook: Dennard avoided in-season jail time following a 2012 incident prior to the draft, opening the door for him to pick up where he left off at the conclusion of his rookie season. Dennard helped to stabilize the secondary as a starter opposite of Aqib Talib and figures to compete with Kyle Arrington for a starting job in 2013. Arrington is more explosive and adds special-teams value, but Dennard is an instinctive zone cornerback who can be physical at the line of scrimmage.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Running back Brandon Bolden
2012 stats: 56 carries, 274 yards, two touchdowns
2013 outlook: Prior to a four-game suspension for a violation of the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy, Bolden emerged as a backup running back with good between-the-tackles ability. When he returned from an injury/suspension, he became mostly a special-teams player. The feeling here is Bolden will have a chance to earn those carries again in 2013, as he has very good contact strength as a runner and can earn tough yards near the goal line. He'll contribute on special teams, too.

Defensive end Justin Francis
2012 stats: 10 tackles, three sacks
2013 outlook: Defensive end is a position at which the Patriots have a stable of young bodies in the fold for 2013. Francis leapfrogged Bequette and Jermaine Cunningham by season's end in 2012 and should compete for a top reserve job this season. With good natural pass-rushing skills, Francis is a player who can contribute in nickel and dime fronts. His work ethic as a rookie was notable.

Offensive lineman Markus Zusevics
No stats accumulated
2013 outlook: We don't know much about Zusevics, as he started the season on the Non-Football Injury list. He tore a pectoral muscle at the combine in 2012 after a solid career at Iowa and should compete for a reserve tackle spot in 2013.

Defensive lineman Marcus Forston
No stats accumulated
2013 outlook: The Patriots recently released both Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick, the co-starters opposite of Vince Wilfork in 2012. Veteran Tommy Kelly and highly touted CFL prospect Armond Armstead were added this offseason, but Forston should also have a shot to compete for work. He's a big body who can defend the run in short-yardage situations and adds some interior quickness. A spot on the 53-man roster seems in play again for Forston.
Field Yates has previous experience interning with the New England Patriots on both their coaching and scouting staffs. A graduate of Wesleyan University (CT), he is a regular contributor to ESPN Boston's Patriots coverage and ESPN Insider.

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