- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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There used to be a time in Bill Belichick's tenure as New England Patriots head coach that a rookie defender would be eased into the mix, a result of a complex scheme to learn and several established veterans ahead of them.
Those days seem to be over.
So when anticipating what the Patriots should expect this year from first-round draft choices Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower, who just concluded their first minicamp with the team this weekend, why not think big?
"These guys have to contribute immediately," opined ESPN analyst Damien Woody on Sunday. "They can't red-shirt. They have to earn their scholarship now."
That's what linebacker Jerod Mayo did in 2008. Selected 10th overall that year, he was an instant starter, one of the first to smash the perception that a youngster needs a year to break through in Belichick's scheme. Even 2010 second-round draft choice Jermaine Cunningham, who now could be threatened to earn a roster spot, played almost 50 percent of the snaps his first season.
So for those wondering what a realistic expectation might be for Jones and Hightower, there is recent precedent to think they will play a lot, and right away. Woody sees them as potential difference-makers for a defense in need of them.
"The thing that stands out about both first-round picks is that they are versatile and they can rush the passer," he said. "Hightower, the way [Nick] Saban used him at Alabama, he can have his hand on the ground, and he's very good at blitzing. He can get after the quarterback. With Jones, you could envision him standing up or with his hand in the dirt.
"For Bill, that is great. He is all about position flexibility and both provide that. You know Bill isn't going to come out and say, 'We expect these guys to be major contributors,' but looking at that defense from an outside perspective, how can you not depend on those guys to make a pretty good impact?
"Andre Carter, you don't know if he's going to return, and Mark Anderson is in Buffalo. Those were your two top pass rushers last year and they were very productive. So you have to count on these guys to come in and provide some pass rush."
Former Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Mike Flynn, the western Massachusetts native now working as a talk-radio host and football analyst in Boston, wouldn't be surprised if Hightower makes a more immediate impact.
"He looks like a pro-ready guy," Flynn said. "One of the things that he has going for him is that he's pretty flexible. He has the ability to rush the passer, the ability to play the run, the ability to drop into coverage. Based on what he did in college, I think he could play right away."
Although Jones was selected 21st overall, four picks ahead of Hightower, Flynn wouldn't be surprised if he opens his career as more of a situational option.
"It will probably be tied to what Bill Belichick wants him to be," Flynn said. "In a 4-3, [Jones] could be a rush guy and have some success. You could put him in nickel, third down and stuff like that, to get his feet wet. In the 3-4, it will be important to see how he drops in coverage to a point [as an outside linebacker]. So he has a lot on his plate -- rushing the passer, playing the run, dropping in coverage.
"He has a great football body for his position and looks like he could put on 25 pounds and still look the same. He's really long. If you're a tackle or a guard, those are the worst guys to deal with, the ones with the long arms and big hands. They get into you and you can't get a hold of them.
"So he could have higher upside in a year or two, but I could see him as a situational guy as he gets used to it. The offensive tackles in the pros are bigger, stronger, and they play with good technique, so the grind of 70 plays as a defensive end could take a toll on him."
While Woody and Flynn envision some early contributions for Jones and Hightower, former NFL quarterback Jim Miller -- an analyst for Sirius XM NFL Radio -- thinks the Patriots will be OK either way.
"At some point in time, they're all going to contribute, but I don't think they need to contribute right away," Miller said. "Let's be honest, they were in the Super Bowl last year. People say the defense was horrible, but I thought they started to play pretty well at the end of the year. I don't think either of them will be 70-to-75-snap players.
"I think it is about a pass rusher for them," Miller continued. "Can Chandler Jones provide that? Can Dont'a Hightower provide that? It remains to be seen, but I do like how they're versatile and can do a lot of different things. With Hightower, it reminds me of when they had Mike Vrabel -- put him in a 'joker' role and line him up anywhere. I think he could eventually have a nice impact for that defense."
That high-level "impact" is what stands out to Woody, which he believes has been missing in recent years. That's why he sees Jones and Hightower being tossed right into the mix.
"When I was playing against the Patriots defense, there were staples there -- Seymours, Warrens, Vrabels, Bruschis. It was always a battle, either as a teammate going against them in practice, or playing against them with the Jets. Now it's different," he said.
"They have Vince [Wilfork], one of the best d-linemen in the league. Mayo is one of the better linebackers, but they're still looking for an identity on defense. I think one thing the new CBA has done is that financially it made it more sensible to use both first-round picks, and basically their whole draft went toward defense. Now it's about getting the defense on track.
"Being matter of fact, they just weren't good last year on defense. Nobody was scared of the Patriots when it came to their defense. It's all about getting studs back on defense and slowing people down because we all know the Patriots can score points."
The Patriots' rookies could make an immediate impact on defense.