By: Derek Havens
The 2012 NFL season has come to an end for the New England Patriots, which opens the door to reflect on the team’s rookie draft class. The Pats selected seven rookies last April, and now with a full year under their belts, we have a better idea of what they might become in the future; although, the picture is anything but complete at this point.
Here are their individual grades based on performance, playing time and production.
2012 Patriots Draft:
Chandler Jones — Grade: B
After a tremendous start to the season and an early leader for Defensive Rookie of the Year, the Syracuse product had some struggles. Ankle injuries forced him to miss significant time and his pass rush was not nearly as effective towards the end of the season. Jones would have a higher grade if he was able to stay on the field healthy and his production did not dip as low as it did.
Going forward, I expect Jones to make huge strides and should be a terror off the edge.
Dont’a Hightower — Grade: B –
Two things prevented Hightower’s grade to be higher; he missed two games with an injured hamstring and I expected more from an impact standpoint. The rookie linebacker was one of my favorite prospects going into the process and he did make a solid contribution to the team.
Four sacks, two fumble recoveries, one touchdown and 60 tackles all look good on paper, but watching the games he seemed to be holding back. Hightower seemed to excel when the coaching staff gave him the green light to be aggressive, but I am curious if he will do so more on his own next season. Overall, a solid player with potential for great improvement.
Tavon Wilson — Grade: C –
Wilson was certainly the most questionable selection by the Patriots from a value standpoint. I highly criticized the pick based off of college production and value; something the team has put a high emphasis on in past draft classes. While Wilson did play in all 16 regular season games and recorded four interceptions, he also was benched after giving up several deep passes; Seattle’s game winning 46-yard bomb sticks out.
I do believe Wilson has potential to grow into a solid player for New England, but next year’s “jump” will be critical.
Jake Bequette — Grade: F
I don’t want to be too hard on Bequette, because I question the team’s decision to take him in the third-round and then essentially red-shirting the Arkansas alum. Only active for three games this season, Bequette rarely saw the field and only played 29 snaps all season. He did not record any statistics.
I envision Bequette potentially sliding into a rotational passing-down role moving forward, but his off-season and training camp will be highly monitored.
Nate Ebner — Grade: D –
When the Patriots selected Ohio State defensive back Nate Ebner in the sixth round, it seemed like a total Bill Belichick pick. Ebner, a world-class rugby player, was not invited to the combine and flew under the radar. He did, however, play in 15 games during the season and contributed on special teams.
Ebner’s development next season should add value to the Pats core special team group, but I highly doubt him seeing any significant playing time on defense.
Alfonzo Dennard — Grade: A
As much as I love both Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower, Dennard was the best selection by the Patriots in 2012. Not that he is or will be a better player, but based on where they drafted him — seventh round — as well as his production, Dennard was tremendous. The Nebraska defensive back opened eyes early and his thick frame and physical play had many comparing him to Ty Law.
Moving forward I expect Dennard to start for the Patriots at cornerback and if he has a strong off-season, could really develop into a very good player.
Jeremy Ebert — Grade: N/A
As a seventh-round selection, the Northwestern receiver was a long-shot to make the team. He spent time on the Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles practice squads, but was never on an active roster.
Ebert may participate in training camp somewhere in the NFL, but I have no expectations for him moving forward.
Overall Grade: B
As a whole, the Patriots draft class earned a solid “B” grade. New England added three defensive starters, a potential starter next year in Tavon Wilson and two players that could have roles moving forward. After finishing near or at the bottom in several defensive categories in 2011, targeting young talent was clearly a priority and needed to happen.
I did not mention four undrafted free agent rookies that ended the year on the Patriots 53-man roster; running back Brandon Bolden, offensive lineman Markus Zusevics, as well as defensive lineman Justin Francis and Marcus Forston. I expect all of them to be back for training camp and could be solid rotational, depth players next year.
I expect big leaps by Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower and Alfonzo Dennard next season; all should be starters in 2013. More questionable decisions on players and value in the mid-rounds was once again an issue for the Patriots last year and hindsight being 20/20, it’s hard not to look back and wonder “what if”.
While their evaluations are purely based off one year, it is too early to make any final decision on a player just yet. Overall, the team did a good job addressing their key needs and selecting players who did a solid job in their first season.
What are your grades for the 2012 draft class? Thoughts on their first season? Leave a comment and share your opinion below! Do you have a Twitter account? Be sure to follow me: @PatriotsHaven!