The Patriots defense – and the team in general – is undergoing a youth movement. There will be some key players thrust into the starting lineup on both sides of the ball, including a pair of rookies on defense in Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower.
But those two youngsters won't be alone when it comes to inexperienced players taking on big roles. Jermaine Cunningham barely saw the field a year ago after being a regular as a rookie in 2010. He could be a big part of the team's pass rush in sub packages depending how things unfold. On offense, second-year running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen could factor into the attack as larger pieces of the puzzle than the running game has been in the recent past.
So this week we're trying to narrow down our focus of the young players to try to determine which will have the greatest impact in 2012.
Our Samsonite Make Your Case question asks just that -- Which young player will make the greatest impact for the Patriots?
PFW's Andy Hart says ...
Being the top pick -- a pass rusher who Bill Belichick finally traded up to get – means huge expectations for Jones. Initially I was among those who cautioned that it might take a while for the young and relatively raw edge player to develop. But he certainly was impressive in both training camp practice and preseason action.
There will be mistakes. There will be tough days against elite left tackles. But Jones has already shown the quickness, athletic ability, diversity of moves and attitude to be an impact rookie. Given the lack of proven talent at defensive end and in the area of pass rush, Jones will get every opportunity to be an impact playmaker off the edge from the very first snap.
He's the starter at right defensive. He gets to chase the blindside of opposing passers. He gets the chance to be a leader among the young playmakers on the retooled Patriots defense. It's not too bold to say – given his position, role and expectations -- that Jones is the most exciting rookie to hit the field for the Patriots since Willie McGinest nearly two decades ago. Welcome to the NFL, rook!
PFW's Paul Perillo says ...
I think Hightower has the chance to be a defensive rookie of the year candidate – he's that talented. He brings such a wide array of abilities to the field – quickness, toughness, intelligence, versatility – and he's going to get a chance to show those traits right from the opening kickoff as a starter.
Hightower has already displayed how impressive he can be by performing at all three linebacker spots during the preseason, and he's even donned the green dot helmet that allows him to communicate with the coaches from the sideline. Not many rookies are asked to do that much immediately, even in the preseason.
I expect to see him factor into the defense at pretty much every level. He will be a force against the run, get some chances to rush the passer and even will get some opportunities in pass coverage. If he's able to contribute in these phases – and I believe he will – no young player will make a bigger impact in New England in 2012.
Now it's the fans turn to cast their vote in this week's Samsonite Make Your Case poll.