With the 2012 NFL draft in the books, here’s a look at all seven of the Patriots’ picks, as well as some comparable skill sets and how they might be utilized as rookies.
Measurables: 6-foot-5, 265 pounds
The skinny: A punishing defensive end out of Syracuse, the 22-year-old Jones (the brother of MMA star Jonny “Bones” Jones and Ravens defensive tackle Arthur Jones) was taken with the 21st pick of the first round. A hyper-athletic DE/OLB hybrid, he showed an ability to pressure the quarterback and set the edge in college. Jones earned a first-team Big East selection in 2011 even though he missed the first five games of the season with a knee injury. (In seven games, Jones managed to accumulate 39 tackles, 4 1/2 sacks, one forced fumble and an interception.)
Quote: “I wouldn’t describe my game as an individual. I wouldn’t call myself a pass rusher or a run stopper. When I watch film, basically I just look at all the greats and take little things from all those guys, each individual and try to add it to my game.” -- Jones, speaking with the media on Friday
Comparable skill set: In a perfect world for the Patriots, it’s Willie McGinest, who has served as the blueprint for the “elephant” position for so many years in New England. (At 6-foot-5, 270 pounds, McGinest had a similar body type to Jones.) The other end of the spectrum likely is Shawn Crable (6-foot-5, 245 pounds), who was another long, lean end the Patriots hoped would be able to fill that spot but never made an impact.
Projection: Jones is considered to be in the mold of previous DE/OLB hybrids the Patriots have utilized in the past. When he gets on the field, Jones will be asked to handle a variety of responsibilities, including rush the passer, drop into coverage and set the edge. How much playing time he gets as a rookie could ultimately be tied to whether or not the Patriots bring back free agent Andre Carter, but Jones will almost certainly get an opportunity to make an impact in his first year in the league. What he does with that chance is up to him.
Measurables: 6-foot-2, 265 pounds
The skinny: When you are looking at the sum total of New England’s draft, Hightower is the most intriguing puzzle piece of all. He was shuffled all over the field at Alabama, and that versatility will serve him well in a New England defense where he can play multiple spots in either a 4-3 or 3-4. As a collegian, he was the leader of the best college defense in the nation, finishing with a career-best 85 tackles, three pass breakups, one interception, one forced fumble and one blocked kick in 13 games at the middle linebacker spot.
Quote: “I feel like [my versatility] is what’s going to have me on the field a lot this year. Whether it’s getting after the quarterback, getting on the running back, or dropping in coverage, just trying to throw the quarterback off.” -- Hightower, speaking Friday about his versatility
Comparable skill set: Not sure if there’s a player with his skill set currently on the roster. It’s a stretch, but maybe the closest comparison is Rob Ninkovich, particularly when it comes to having a measure of versatility in that he’s a linebacker who can also occasionally play in a two-point stance.
Projection: Hightower will be the first member of New England’s rookie class to see the field on a regular basis and make a serious impact, but don’t look for him to settle into a traditional position. Instead, his previous knowledge of the scheme (picked up while running with former Belichick assistant Nick Saban at Alabama) combined with his football IQ should have him on the field from the start. He could see action on the inside or the outside, provided on whatever defensive look the Patriots are showing at the time. Ultimately, he has a chance to be a very special player very quickly in the New England defense.
Measurables: 6-foot, 205 pounds
The skinny: Taken with the 16th pick of the second round out of Illinois, Wilson was considered by many to be a bit of a reach, especially with other, higher-rated defensive backs on the board at that spot. But like many others in this year’s draft class, his calling card could ultimately be his versatility: He has played both left and right corner, as well as in the slot, at safety and on special teams. Considered a high-character individual who was a senior captain, he’s coming off a 2011 season where he had 81 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, six pass break-ups, one interception and one sack in 13 starts.
Quote: “It was definitely motivating. Any time you don’t get into something that you feel like you should be in, you just try ... I’m a competitor, so I watched it. I watched it and saw what those guys did. When I got my opportunity to show what I can do, I showed what I can do.” -- Wilson on the motivating aspect of not being invited to the combine
Comparable skill set: At first glance, there are not many similar players on the New England roster. It might be a bit of a reach, but there are certain aspects of Matt Slater in his game, particularly in his positional versatility, special teams skills, work as a defensive back and his character level. That being said, the Patriots will look for more production on defense out of Wilson than they have out of Slater.
Projection: Like Devin McCourty and Sterling Moore, Wilson is a defensive back with some versatility, which should help him see the field sooner rather than later. He will likely start as a fairly regular contributor on special teams, but could work his way into the defensive back rotation as the season continues.
Measurables: 6-foot-5, 275 pounds
The skinny: A versatile defensive lineman, he was taken in the third round (90th overall) out of Arkansas. The fifth-year senior made his bones as an edge rusher, finishing with 10 sacks in 10 games in 2011, but he also dropped back in coverage in some passing situations. A two-time defensive captain at Arkansas, he’s known for his quickness: as a collegian, his 20-yard shuttle was a solid 4.07 (the second fastest among defensive linemen at the combine) and his three-cone drill (6.9) was third.
Quote: “I played the 4-3 end mostly in college, but I also stood up a little bit doing the outside linebacker position in the Senior Bowl and combine. The more I did it, the more it grew on me, so I feel very comfortable in both. I can’t wait to see what the coaches have in store for me.” -- Bequette on his positional versatility
Comparable skill set: The Patriots crave versatility on both sides of the ball, and that includes their defensive linemen (particularly veteran Vince Wilfork). However, they have rarely had a defensive lineman like Bequette who is known for his quickness. The one name that springs to mind is Mike Wright, who was about 20 pounds heavier than Bequette, but was also a quick, versatile defensive lineman who had an ability to get after quarterbacks.
Projection: Even with what’s starting to look like a crowded mix up front, Bequette will almost certainly be in the mix sooner rather than later because of his flexibility. Right now, he will likely battle Jermaine Cunningham, Markell Carter and free-agent signee Trevor Scott for playing time.
Measurables: 6-foot, 205 pounds
The skinny: Ebner was taken with the 197th overall selection (sixth round) on Saturday. One of the most unique draftees in franchise history, this former rugby player didn’t play a lick of high school football, but found a role at Ohio State after walking on and eventually earning a scholarship. Listed officially as a safety, special teams was where he found a home, as he saw just three snaps as a defensive back last year. When it comes to a scouting report, our colleagues at Pro Football Weekly describe Ebner as someone who “races down the field like a bat out of hell and hunts returners like a heat-seeking missile.”
Quote: “I just enjoy running down as fast as you can and you know, it’s just mayhem. It’s exciting, it’s crazy, it’s such a rush. I don’t even know what to say about it. It happens so fast, it’s just one big blur and then it’s over. I just love it for some reason – I don’t know -- maybe I’ve got a screw loose.” -- Ebner on why kick coverage is the favorite part of special teams
Comparable skill set: In a perfect world, he’s a Steve Tasker clone -- another unheralded product who started a Big 10 rugby player and ended up making his mark as a special teamer in the NFL. In that same vein, he certainly brings to mind some other experiments Belichick has undergone when he’s looked for talent (like college wrestlers-turned-offensive linemen Stephen Neal and John Wise and former lacrosse star Will Yeatman, who nearly found a spot on New England’s practice squad last year as a tight end).
Projection: If he finds a way to stick, Ebner is going to be a folk hero for his high-energy approach, leadership skills and willingness to play special teams. (He’s a guy I really want to keep an eye on in training camp and in the preseason when it comes to working on the coverage unit.) Right now, it appears his ceiling is as special teamer, and if all goes perfectly, he could be one of New England’s core players on special teams, a group that includes Tracy White and Matt Slater.
Measurables: 5-foot-10, 205 pounds
The skinny: Taken in the seventh round (224th overall) out of Nebraska, Dennard would have undoubtedly been selected much higher if it wasn’t for several off-field issues, including an arrest for allegedly punching a police officer earlier this month. All that being said, he has an impressive on-field resume, which includes all-Big Ten first team (2011) and Sporting News preseason second-team All-America (2011). Dennard had 31 total tackles and broke up six passes in the 2011 season, and had 91 career tackles, four career interceptions and four career quarterback hurries.
Quote: “Obviously the incident affected his draft position, but certainly we’re aware of it. We researched it, we found out as much as we could about it. Obviously, as an organization we’re comfortable making the selection where we did.” -- Belichick on the decision to draft Dennard.
Comparable skill set: No current members of the New England roster. Some have compared him to Charles Tillman.
Projection: Let’s set aside what he brings to the table as a player. If a player with character issues needs a public reinvention, New England is the place to do it. Just ask Ryan Mallett, who suffered a similar drop last year because of character issues and was picked up by the Patriots in the third round. Mallett can tell you that if you say “please” and “thank you” and drink your milk all the way to the bottom of the glass and build a rep as a good teammate and individual, then the past will be forgotten. If that happens, the selection of Dennard -- thought to be a second- or third-round pick -- will be hailed as a master stroke. But if there is trouble, then Dennard will be gone sooner rather than later.
Measurables: 6-foot, 195 pounds
The skinny: Ebert, who was taken in the seventh round, 235th overall out of Northwestern, is a wide receiver who made a rep as a slot receiver with impressive speed: he ran a blazing 4.38 40 at Northwestern’s Pro Day, and had a combined 137 catches his last two years with the Wildcats. Kevin Fishbain of Pro Football Weekly — also a Northwestern product — compared Ebert to Julian Edelman shortly after the pick was made, saying Ebert is an “adept route runner [who] played in a spread, caught everything and could run after the catch.”
Quote: “He’s a Pro Bowler. How are you going to compare a rookie out of college to one of the greatest wide receivers in the NFL? But absolutely I’m excited to meet him and soak up as much information from him as I can. He basically invented the slot (position) in this new day and age.” -- Ebert, speaking with the Chicago Tribune on the inevitable comparisons to Wes Welker.
Comparable skill set: While there are elements of Welker in his game, he’s about as Julian Edelman-y as they come: There’s the overall body type (Ebert is 6-feet, 195 pounds, while Edelman is 5-foot-10, 198 pounds). Then, there’s the No. 11 they both wear, his draft status (Edelman was also a seventh-round pick), overall positional versatility (which includes his work as a quarterback in high school) and their occasional work as a special teamer.
Projection: He’ll have to make his mark as a special teamer or a practice squadder as a rookie, as the New England’s receiving corps is a veteran bunch.