After three painfully long days of rumors, trades and picks, the 2012 NFL Draft is in the books. For Patriots fans, it was a characteristically unpredictable experience, beginning with the unthinkable – trading up for two players in the first round, and ending with the usual – taking some obscure players. Let’s take a look at the seven-member draft class.
1. Chandler Jones, DE/OLB, Syracuse (1st round, 21st overall): During my interview with ESPN/Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson early last week, he brought up Jones as a guy the Patriots would really be interested in. Turns out Williamson was spot on, as Belichick executed a trade up from pick 27 to 21 to select the 6-foot-5, 266-pounder. The lengthy defensive end has drawn comparisons to Jason Pierre-Paul for his raw athleticism, although I’d argue he isn’t as explosive or quick as the Giants Pro Bowler. However, Jones’ game tape reveals incredible upside because of his hand usage, shedding ability and pass-rush ability. The younger brother of Ravens defensive tackle Arthur Jones and UFC star Jon “Bones” Jones will be groomed at the elephant position and can also play defensive end in 4-3 schemes.
2. Dont’a Hightower, LB, Alabama (1st round, 25th overall): Watch Hightower’s tape against Tennessee from last season and you’ll quickly realize how his versatility should make an instant impact on the league’s 31st-ranked defense. The 6-foot-2, 265-pounder was the leader of the nation’s best defense, registering 80 tackles, including 11 for loss, four sacks, an interception and a forced fumble. Despite being listed as an inside linebacker, Hightower is far more than a thumper in the middle. He has experience lining up as a 3-4 outside linebacker and a pass-rushing defensive end on third down. His ability to line up all over the defense and perhaps spell Brandon Spikes on passing downs makes him an excellent fit in the Patriots system.
3. Tavon Wilson, DB, Illinois (2nd round, 48th overall): With plenty of better known defensive backs on the board, the Patriots made one of the biggest head scratchers of the draft by taking Wilson in the middle of the second round. The former safety/corner was projected to go in the late rounds before New England made him the third safety off the board. The 6-foot, 205-pounder brings solid athleticism (4.52 forty) and versatility and experience. It’ll be interesting to see if he outplays the projections, and his selection will be one that could go a long way in cementing Bill Belichick’s legacy of drafting defensive backs.
4. Jake Bequette, DE/OLB, Arkansas (3rd round, 90th overall): Measuring in at 6-foot-5, 274 pounds, this former Razorback certainly has the requisite size to be a pass-rushing force in the Patriots defense. Although he was projected to go in the fifth round, I think he’s a solid fit because he can line up as an outside linebacker and defensive end. Bequette was a two-time captain at Arkansas and is highly regarded for both his pass-rushing skills and his motor. Whenever a player records 23.5 sacks in the SEC, that’s no easy feat.
5. Nate Ebner, S, Ohio State (6th round, 197th overall): Every year, the Pats seem to make a pick soley for special teams value. By selecting the former rugby player turned walk-on, New England added a special athlete who brings toughness, physicality and upside. Ebner was a standout rugby player, and as a rugby player myself, I can tell you those skills will certainly benefit his football career. It seems Mike Vrabel’s influence played a big part in selecting Ebner, a player whose best football might be ahead of him.
6. Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska (7th round, 224th overall): Prior to the 2011 season, the former Cornhusker was considered a possible first-round pick. Even after a down year, he still was a second- or third-rounder. However, after a poor Senior Bowl and a late April arrest, Dennard slipped all the way to the draft’s final round. This is a terrific value pick by Belichick and for me, makes up for the huge reach in the second round. Dennard is highly regarded for his physical press-man abilities, although there are questions about his fit as a corner because of his lack of deep speed. If he works hard, he could eventually emerge as one of the top corners on the roster.
7. Jeremy Ebert, WR, Northwestern (7th round, 235th overall): With Wes Welker’s status in limbo, the Patriots selected another similar player to he and Julian Edelman. The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder has tremendous speed, running between 4.38-4.44 at his pro day. The former high school quarterback was a versatile weapon in college, finishing his senior year with 75 catches, 1,060 yards and 11 touchdowns. While he doesn’t have the elite agility like Welker, he stands a good shot at becoming a slot receiver who could possibly be a returner.