- Field Yates, ESPN Insider
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New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has talked at length in the past about the critical importance of the offseason for players entering their second NFL season. It often turns out that players experience their biggest jump from one year to the next from their rookie to sophomore seasons.
We saw it with Stevan Ridley in 2012, as he became the Patriots' workhorse back and one of the NFL's top rushers.
With the regular season more than halfway over and the bye week upon us, below is a look at how the Patriots' second-year players have performed.
Defensive end Chandler Jones: When Belichick talked about the development of second-year players, it was likely exactly with what we've seen from Jones in mind. The team's top pick in 2012 has built off his six-sack rookie season to become one of the best pass-rushers in the AFC, totaling 8.5 already. He's firmly entrenched himself as a cornerstone of the defense.
Linebacker Dont'a Hightower: Another first-round pick in 2012, Hightower is also a key defender for the Patriots. He's taken on a bigger leadership role this season from an on-field communication standpoint, particularly with Jerod Mayo out for the season. Hightower is an able run defender, though his speed limitation has shown up in pass coverage.
Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard: Dennard made the leap into the starting lineup toward the end of his rookie season and has not looked back since. He's developed into a dependable perimeter corner that has shined through the season's first half. He projects as a long-term starter if he stays on his current arc of progression.
Running back Brandon Bolden: Bolden has figured significantly into the Patriots' running back rotation, often serving as the back within the up-tempo offense. He's played a less prominent role on special teams this season than he did last year, and it will be interesting to see how his offensive role changes when Shane Vereen returns.
Safety Tavon Wilson: The second-round pick out of Illinois in 2012 started off his NFL career as a regular part of the Patriots' defense. He has since become largely a special-teams player. He missed time earlier this season due to a hamstring issue, but he's become among the team's top core special teamers.
Safety Nate Ebner: Ebner was drafted with the idea in mind of him becoming an impactful special teams player, and he's steadily contributed on coverage units. He has not had a defensive role this season.
Defensive tackle Marcus Forston: After starting the year on the practice squad, Forston was promoted to the active roster amidst injuries to Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. He's yet to play much, however, as the team has leaned more on rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones.
Defensive end Jake Bequette: There was hope that a full offseason would propel Bequette onto the radar this season, but that has not yet been the case. The Patriots turned to rookie defensive end Michael Buchanan as their third rusher earlier in the year before more recently signing veteran Andre Carter. Bequette is effectively the fifth defensive end on the roster.