The Patriots defense spent the 2011 season, well, defending itself. The group resided at or near the bottom in a variety of statistical categories including yards, first downs, passing yards and third-down percentage. So, Bill Belichick set out to do something about, spending six of his seven draft picks on that side of the ball.
Now the Patriots will have the potential of adding a pair of first-round picks to the mix in Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower as well as third-round pick Jake Bequette. New England also drafted two defensive backs in Tavon Wilson (second round) and Alfonzo Dennard (seventh). Clearly the potential for improvement exists with the influx of talent.
Jones and Bequette are edge players who figure to help the pass rush. Hightower, although an inside linebacker, saw a lot of action outside in sub packages and could factor into the equation in that department as well. Wilson and Dennard should jump right into the fray as potential nickel and dime backs in a secondary that struggled throughout the 2011 campaign.
With the addition of young, athletic playmakers the defense stands to improve, but which one stands to offer the most as rookie in 2012? That's what we try to figure out in this week's Samsonite Make Your Case.
Which rookie will have the greatest impact in 2012?
PFW's Paul Perillo says … Hightower
A case could be made for virtually any of the defensive players but I believe Hightower is the most NFL-ready of the class. His pedigree playing in a pro-style defense under Nick Saban – one with similarities to the Patriots system – should serve as excellent preparation for his rookie season.
Hightower is an intriguing athlete with the ability to play inside and out. He did both for the Crimson Tide and I could easily envision him in roles doing both in New England. He would serve as insurance inside behind Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, both of whom missed significant time in 2011. Spikes in particular hasn't been able to show the consistency necessary to stay on the field for 16 games, and Hightower will make it easier for Bill Belichick if that's the case once again.
Even if Hightower remains a backup, he should be an option in sub packages as a potential pass rusher. His athleticism and size will make him a tough matchup, and his versatility will keep offenses guessing about his intentions. He was the leader and signal-caller for Alabama's complex defense so his assimilation to New England's system may not be as difficult as some others.
He may not be the flashiest player the Patriots drafted, but he will have the biggest immediate impact.
PFW's Andy Hart says … Bequette
Seeing as six of the Patriots seven draft picks came on defense, it's pretty clear that the top rookie contributor will be on that side of the ball. And taking into consideration that the team lost Mark Anderson (10 sacks) to free agency and Andre Carter (10 sacks) is in free agent limbo thanks to his torn quad, the area on defense most open to a rookie reps is at the end of the line on the front seven.
Some would argue that would make top pick Chandler Jones the most likely rookie to open his career in a starring role. But I actually think that third-round pick Jake Bequette might be more game-ready thanks to his impressive productive experience as a pass rusher and football IQ that he developed as the "quarterback" of the Arkansas defense.
Long term I think Jones will have a better career and be a solid first-round pick. But from day one I think that Bequette has the chance to earn reps as a pure pass rusher and get after the quarterback. I wouldn't be surprised to see Bequette notch six or eight sacks as a rookie. And even if he's better initially than Jones, I don't think it will be any kind of commentary on the first rounder.
Bequette will be a thorn in opposing QBs' sides from day one.
Now it's the fans turn to cast their vote in this week's Samsonite Make Your Case poll.