Patriots Mailbag: Dont’a Hightower Should Have Good Year as Patriots Use Draft to Improve Defense

Patriots Mailbag: Dont'a Hightower Should Have Good Year as Patriots Use Draft to Improve DefenseFOXBORO, Mass. — I’ve always loved the NFL draft. The buildup is exciting, and it’s even more fun to watch as it plays out unpredictably. And while I think the Patriots had one of the best draft classes this year, there were a lot of teams that did well to improve last week.

But as much as I love the draft, I can’t say enough how excited I am that it’s over because that puts the focus directly on the field. Coincidentally — or maybe not, actually — the Patriots transitioned into their second phase of offseason workouts this week. They broke from their conditioning period into on-field work, though it will be a few more weeks until the offense can line up against the defense. With all of that in mind, this was an exciting week in the NFL.

Yet, the league lost a great friend Wednesday, as Junior Seau‘s death has devastated so many who knew him. He’s a future Hall of Famer, but people have mostly reflected about the vibrant way he lived his life off the field. In my opinion, that’s his greatest accomplishment.

Of the three front-seven players — Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower and Jake Bequette — who will have the best rookie year?
–@tomwatsonpats, via Twitter

Good question, and I’ll go with Hightower because I think he’ll have more of an opportunity to play due to his versatility. He can play in any front, whether it’s the 4-3, 3-4 or nickel, so he should have plenty of chances to get on the field. Plus, if Jerod Mayo or Brandon Spikes suffer an injury, Hightower will be a starter.

I think Jones and Bequette have the talent to earn starting-caliber reps, but the Patriots’ defensive line has so much depth that they’ll probably be used as rotational players until — or, unless — they prove they deserve to be on the field for every down, as Mark Anderson showed later last season. In four-man fronts, Jones and Bequette will rotate with Jonathan Fanene, Trevor Scott, Brandon Deaderick, Markell Carter, Jermaine Cunningham and Rob Ninkovich, among others. The Patriots will also add Andre Carter to the mix if he’s healthy.

In a few years, I believe Hightower and Jones will be high-octane playmakers, and Bequette could be a sturdy, reliable piece on the edge. But in 2012, Hightower should have the best opportunity to contribute.

I think the selection of the defensive backs is a total gamble. Tavon Wilson and Alfonzo Dennard could be busts or great. What do you think?
–@iMassri, via Twitter

I’ll start with the obligatory statement that all draft picks are gambles. OK, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, let’s get down to brass tacks.

I’m still not entirely sure how Wilson will develop, but he’s got the versatility to play throughout the secondary, which will give him the chance to get on the field. I’d be surprised if he earned a starting job in 2012, but then again, I really need to see him play in camp before I get a better opinion. He’s a good kid, and he’s going to work hard, so you can rely on that.

Dennard is a good player, no doubt. He wasn’t the Big Ten’s defensive back of the year by accident, but he’s going to have to mature to earn a starting job. I don’t mean that in an off-the-field sense, either. Dennard plays the game with a tough and physical mentality, and that’s great, but he’s going to have to be smarter with that style at the NFL level. He won’t be able to get away with everything until he earns it.

As for Dennard’s issues off the field, if he can rein those in, he could really develop into something solid, even if that takes a few years. Dennard allegedly punched a cop one week before the draft. That’s stupid. But if he was a no-doubt talent who could start Week 1 of his rookie season, he wouldn’t have fallen to the seventh round. The Patriots probably got a steal there, but he’s got some developing to do.

How do you see Sterling Moore progressing after a full offseason program? He seemed to show a lot of potential.
–@SDSCHWAB, via Twitter

Moore was one of the defense’s best playmakers during the final month of the Patriots’ run, and I definitely liked what I saw. He plays with confidence, and he knows how to go after the ball. He’s got to improve his consistency, though, because he can make two terrific plays in one series and get burnt on an easy route on the next series.

It’s a terrific point about the offseason program, though. Moore was undrafted, so he had to wait until the lockout ended in late July before signing with a team, which turned out to be the Raiders. Because of that, this offseason program should be infinitely helpful to last year’s undrafted players like Moore.

Keep in mind, last year’s draft picks were permitted on the team premises for a few hours during the draft weekend, which gave them enough time to meet coaches and collect contact information. That gave them the chance to work out with their new teammates and learn things about the playbook. By that notion, draft picks got a three-month head start on undrafted players.

Now, I was told by multiple sources that there was plenty of tampering going on with undrafted free agents during the lockout. I’m not sure if every team did it, but there were a number of players who had basic contracts in place for the time the lockout concluded. But because each side still braced for that deal to unexpectedly fall apart — for any reason, really — I’m not sure the wink-wink agreement translated into the head start that the draft picks got. It might have been too much of a gamble in that regard.

It’s wide receiver madness! Who gets cut and who’s on the bubble? And does Julian Edelman now make his living on defense and special teams?
–@Giguere4211, via Twitter

The wide receiver depth chart as I see it: 1. Wes Welker 2. Brandon Lloyd 3. Jabar Gaffney 4. Deion Branch 5. Julian Edelman. Slater as a defensive back, and Chad Ochocinco and Donte Stallworth cut. Thoughts?
–@bostonsboy87, via Twitter

First things first, I believe Edelman’s future will be as a do-it-all player. He might be officially listed as a wide receiver, but he’ll play in all three phases, and I believe he’ll make the team in 2012.

Right now, I believe Welker, Lloyd, Gaffney and Branch are locks. I also believe Edelman and Slater make the team. Very soon, I’ll take a thorough look at the entire roster to see if there’s enough room for Anthony Gonzalez, Donte Stallworth or Ochocinco. I think one of them can make it, but if all three get cut during camp, I can also see the scenario of Belichick telling them to stay by the phone in case of an injury.

Britt Davis and Jeremy Ebert are candidates for the practice squad.

Would you not agree that the Bengals had a better, deeper draft than the Pats? What is it about the Patriots locker room that allows them to handle problem players like Corey Dillon, Randy Moss and now Dennard, where the Bengals are ill-equipped to handle players like Vontaze Burfict? Is it veteran leadership or the strength of Bill Belichick’s personality?
–Nathan (New York City)

I’m not sure if the Bengals had a better draft than the Patriots, but I do know with 100 percent certainty the Bengals had more holes to fill than the Pats. Therefore, the Bengals might have had a deeper draft.

I’ve also heard more about more of the Bengals’ draft picks than some of the Patriots’ selections, but pre-draft hype doesn’t mean anything after the draft. But hey, I didn’t know much of anything about Logan Mankins in 2005 or Sebastian Vollmer in 2009. Turns out, those guys are pretty good at football. On the flip side, I loved Chad Jackson at Florida and Brandon Meriweather at Miami. I also thought Meriweather was on his way to stardom after the 2009 season. Sometimes, things stop working out.

I also know the Colts had a better draft than the Patriots because the Colts took a franchise quarterback that the Patriots didn’t need. But the Colts probably won’t be in the playoffs in 2012, while the Patriots are easily the best team in the AFC right now.

Point is, the draft is about efficiently filling needs, and that’s how success is determined. The Patriots needed defensive playmakers, and they got two in the first round, and they might have gotten two more later in the draft. If Jones and Hightower get the defense over the hump next season and they win the Super Bowl, I think the Patriots will be pretty happy with their draft. And if eight of the 10 Bengals draft picks improve various spots on the depth chart and they continue to emerge as a consistent playoff contender, I think they’ll be pretty happy with their draft, too. But one doesn’t have to be “better” than the other.

As for the discipline thing, the Patriots have a strong structure in place from the ownership to the coaching staff to the players. They’ve got leaders and proven winners across the board, and as long as the leaders strongly outnumber the knuckleheads, teams can do OK. That ratio shrunk in 2009, which caused the Patriots to field one of their worst teams of the Belichick era, so it was proof that the recipe doesn’t always work.

But on Dennard and Burfict, their success is totally up to them. The Patriots absolutely have a better track record than the Bengals of turning questionable personalities into solid performers. We’ll see if Dennard buys into the program. As for Burfict, though, I just don’t think he’s very good. Not only that, but I’m not sure he’s got the drive to be good, either. We can laud the Patriots for their track record all we want, but I’m not convinced they could maximize Burfict’s ability. So if the Bengals can’t, I wouldn’t fault them for it.

As a Pats fan since 1968, I find it refreshing that this team has finally got it. From the owner down to the training staff, this team is finally the model on how to run a football team. Mr. Kraft lets the football team do the talking for him, not like his counterpart in Dallas, Jerry Jones. With what they did in this draft and free agency, I think they still need a Rodney Harrison-type of defensive back to solidify the defense and instill fear among wide receivers going over the middle. What do you think? Thanks.
–Bill Kendrick (Missoula, Mont.)

Well, Harrison was a rare player. He was truly among the elite safeties throughout his time in the league, so any team could use a player of that caliber.

Don’t give up on Patrick Chung. He plays the game with the same type of attacking mentality, and he loves to hit people. The Patriots were a much better defense last season when he was in the lineup. If Chung can get past the injuries, he’s a Pro Bowl-caliber player.

What would make McCourty (skill wise) better at safety than cornerback? Based on the draft, what are the chances that he a safety along with Chung?
–@CoreyCondardo, via Twitter

I still think McCourty would be more valuable at cornerback than safety, and I’m not convinced the decision has been made about his future at this point. But to your question, McCourty was a much better player facing the ball last season, and he struggled with his awareness when he got turned around. By putting him at safety, he’ll be able to read the play as it happens in front of him from the snap to the whistle. I think that would be a big advantage. Plus, he’s got good ball skills, so if he’s at safety, he might have more of an opportunity to break up passes and create turnovers.

With all that said, I don’t believe 2010 was a fluke. I do think he can get back to that, and if that’s the case, he’s more of an asset at cornerback.

Jeff, could all of this posturing work against Wes Welker, or is this common practice with players in this position?
–C. Lefebvre (Prescott, Ariz.)

Welker is just trying to exercise the little amount of leverage that he’s got as the team’s franchise player. Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Ravens running back Ray Rice are both doing the same exact thing right now. It’s common. As long as the Patriots show Welker they’re willing to work toward a contract extension, I think he’ll show up when it’s time.

The difference between Welker and the other two is the organization. The Patriots have proven time and again that they’ll draw a line in the stand and stick to it. The Saints, meanwhile, can’t afford another public-relations disaster this offseason, and Brees is a hero in New Orleans. He’s also their quarterback, so there’s that. Rice is the Ravens’ best offensive player, too, and there’s not even a close second. Welker doesn’t have the same leverage against his organization as Brees and Rice, so that works against him.

Have a question for Jeff Howe? Send it to him via Twitter at @jeffphowe or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

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