AFC East: Alfronzo Dennard
December, 14, 2012
By James Walker | ESPN.com
Getty Images/AP PhotoDont'a Hightower, left, Alfonzo Dennard, center, and Chandler Jones are leading a youth movement.The mob of media surrounded the usual veteran suspects in the locker room after the New England Patriots' 42-14 victory against the Houston Texans on Monday night.
First, Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker held court in front of the cameras and tape recorders. Then, the large group went over to Vince Wilfork's locker, as well as outside to the media room for quarterback Tom Brady's postgame news conference.
But I went a slightly different route after New England's biggest win of the season. I was particularly intrigued by the number of young players making huge contributions for the Patriots.
I stopped to chat with rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who was alone at his locker. The 22-year-old was a seventh-round pick who nearly became "Mr. Irrelevant" in the April draft. Several months later, Dennard is a starting cornerback for a Super Bowl contender.
"I'm really blessed to be here," said a wide-eyed Dennard, who seemed a little surprised someone from the national media wanted to talk to him.
I also heard from third-year player Devin McCourty, 25, who selflessly changed from a Pro Bowl cornerback his rookie year to a starting safety for the betterment of the team. McCourty had an interception against Houston quarterback Matt Schaub in the end zone that set the tone for the eventual blowout.
"If we do what Coach [Bill] Belichick tells us during the week, we have a chance to play any team tough and to really take advantage of what he says," McCourty said.
Stories from young players such as Dennard and McCourty are just two of many that have defined the 2012 Patriots. New England has long been known as a veteran team. But outside of stars like Brady, Welker and Wilfork, these are not your usual Patriots.
New England (10-3), contrary to popular belief, is winning mostly with youth.
The Patriots are getting better during the course of the season because their young players are improving rapidly. The Patriots have 16 starters or significant contributors who are 26 or younger. Fourteen of those have four or fewer years of experience.
In fact, Brady and Wilfork are the only remaining players from New England's previous Super Bowl-winning team, in 2004. Wilfork was a rookie that season, and caught the end of New England's dynasty.
After losing in the Super Bowl last season, the Patriots had big decisions to make. They wisely let go of veterans such as running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and defensive ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson. Two starting offensive linemen -- left tackle Matt Light and Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters -- retired. The Patriots replaced veteran free agents with much younger players like tailback Stevan Ridley (23), left tackle Nate Solder (23) and first-round picks Chandler Jones (22) and Dont'a Hightower (22).
Will their youth catch up to them? So far, it doesn't appear that way.
New England's young players are getting better with experience, and the Patriots still have the necessary veteran leadership from players like Brady, Wilfork, Welker and Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins. That combination led to a convincing win against Houston. The Patriots also have another tough test Sunday night against the rugged San Francisco 49ers.
But anything can happen in a one-game scenario in January. You never quite know how young players will react in the playoffs on the NFL's biggest stage.
For example, Ridley had fumble issues late last season and in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Patriots didn't trust Ridley enough and benched him for the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl. That luxury no longer exists without Green-Ellis. The Patriots need Ridley to produce. Ridley, by the way, fumbled against Houston, but it was recovered by teammate Aaron Hernandez.
Rookies like Jones, Hightower and Dennard have never played this many games in one season. Including exhibitions and a deep postseason run, the Patriots could end up playing 23 or 24 games. They are counting on their rookie contributors to stay sharp.
Many of these young Patriots are learning on the job -- but it's been a job well done thus far.