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Friday, January 24, 2014
Second look at 2nd-year Patriots

By Field Yates

One of the common elements of development that Bill Belichick preaches is the importance of a player's ascension from his first year in the NFL to his second. With a full offseason to grow both physically and mentally, players often settle in during their second year after enduring the natural rookie bumps.

In 2012, Stevan Ridley exemplified this growth, as he became a top rusher, finishing seventh in the NFL with 1,263 yards and adding 12 touchdowns.

Building off of the critical year-one-to-year-two leap, here's a snapshot of the Patriots rookies from 2012, who each just completed their 2013 season and a thought on their respective development.

Defensive end Chandler Jones
Quick-hit: Jones got off to a hot start as a rookie, tallying a forced fumble that was recovered by fellow first round pick Dont'a Hightower and returned for a score during his first NFL game. Ankle issues caused his production to slow down the stretch in 2012, but he made the leap this season. He led the team with 11.5 sacks and was at-times dominant as a rusher. There's room to grow for Jones as an edge-setting run defender, but he's a defensive cornerstone that no doubt took a massive step in 2013.

Linebacker Dont'a Hightower
Quick-hit: Productive in each of his first two seasons, Hightower had some highs and lows in 2013 as he was thrust into an even bigger role with Jerod Mayo sidelined. Hightower is a tough, physical run defender who had some struggles in pass coverage, but was probably playing a little bit out of position with no Mayo for much of the season. His improvement may not have been as dramatic as Jones', but he's a player that projects to start for years to come.

Safety Tavon Wilson
Quick-hit: Essentially just a core special teamer, Wilson has not made the defensive impact the Patriots likely hoped for when taking him in the second round last year. The biggest issue as we see it with Wilson is the lack of top end reactive athleticism and coverage instincts, something that prevents him from holding down the fort as a downfield pass-defender. With Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon as young safeties on the roster (plus veteran Steve Gregory), it may be hard for Wilson to crack the starting lineup. On the whole, Wilson didn't make a leap this season in our eyes.

Defensive end Jake Bequette
Quick-hit: As a third-round pick, the Patriots likely envisioned Bequette to have a role as part of their defensive end rotation. That hasn't turned out to be the case, as he's had virtually no impact and has been inactive for much of his first two seasons. Bequette's on-field leap wasn't evident this season.

Safety Nate Ebner
Quick-hit: Drafted with the idea in mind of him being a core special teamer, Ebner has been exactly that. He's rugged, tough and a good athlete that can make plays in space. He improved on the whole from his rookie to sophomore season.

Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard
Quick-hit: From a value standpoint, this was the Patriots' best selection last year. Dennard was a starter in 2012 and played exceptionally well for some stretches. He appeared to be in better shape, which was evident from increased explosiveness on the field. He needs to display better decision-making off the field, however, as he was arrested last July leading up to training camp. From a pure football standpoint, Dennard made a big leap.

Running back Brandon Bolden
Quick-hit: Bolden had a role in a backfield that used four backs during the season, though he hasn't made as much as an impact offensively as he was as a rookie. He did play extensively on special teams, where he projects to continue to contribute going forward. Another player who showed steady overall improvement.