Thursday was a historic day for Patriots Nation. Why? For the first time in the history of mankind, Bill Belichick traded up in the NFL Draft. Not once, but twice. At the end of the day, the Pats wound up with two pretty good players -- defensive end Chandler Jones out of Syracuse and Dont'a Hightower from Alabama -- through one round of the 2012 NFL Draft, which began Thursday at Radio City Music Hall.
Chandler was selected first at No. 21 overall, a pick which New England obtained after sending the No. 27 overall pick and a third-rounder to the Cincinnati Bengals. Hightower, meanwhile, was drafted with the No. 25 overall pick after the Patriots sent the No. 31 overall pick and a fourth rounder to the Denver Broncos for the pick.
Draft day had long since become a day of pain for Patriots fans. Sure, Belichick has had some strong finds in the draft -- with sixth-round draft pick Tom Brady being the creme de la creme -- but he has also whiffed of plenty of picks, all while passing up players like Clay Matthews and Mark Ingram. But this time around, Pats fans could actually sit back and enjoy draft day.
While the Pats didn't exactly obtain any franchise altering talent, they certainly addressed a need on defense. As you know by now, New England's defense wasn't very good last year. That's putting it nicely. At times, it was downright awful. But with Belichick leading the way, the young defensive squad matured and became a lot stronger in the playoffs, even outperforming the highly-touted offense in the Super Bowl (you know the result, so I'm not going to expand).
Jones, who played four seasons at Syracuse, was an All-Big East First Team selection but only played seven games in 2011 after suffering a knee injury in a game against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. He finished the season with 30 tackles (eight assists) and had 4.5 sacks. Jones didn't have much interaction with the Pats pre-draft, but he's certainly happy to be here.
"I talked to the Patriots [before the draft]. I talked with them at the Combine. That was the most formal thing we did. That's basically it," Jones told the New England media in a conference call. "We talked at the combine. Coach Belichick is a great coach and I'm excited to be a Patriot."
Jones drew praise for his length and size from National Football Post, but plenty of criticism, too.
Impression: I love his size and length. But I worry about defensive lineman who play upright, lack a great get off burst and struggle to change directions. I don't see him as a big time pass rusher. But if he improves his pad level he could mature into a potential starting option.
What does Jones think of his critics? Well, he knows that they'll probably always be around.
"You know what? I feel like no matter what I do, there's always going to be someone critiquing what I'm doing," said Jones. "Coach Belichick picked me for a reason and I'm excited and I'm happy that I'm a Patriot now."
Hightower (85 total tackles, 41 solo stops, 4.0 sacks in 2011) was part of the phenomenal Crimson Tide defense that blanked the LSU Tigers in this year's BCS National Championship Game, and he brought a pass rushing ability to the team that the Patriots desperately need.
"I would come in on third down and put pressure on the quarterback," Hightower told New England media. "Depending on down and distance, sometimes I would stand up and drop to be an extra zoner; sometimes we'd switch up different roles and have me do some of the other stuff."
Hightower said that playing with so many first round picks last season was certainly beneficial.
"It was a good experience," he said. "Growing up with these guys and playing with them for three or four years, it meant a lot and it showed a lot. It shows the caliber that we have as people, as friends, and the caliber of the university that we're putting out as many good players as we are. It has a lot to do with Coach [Nick] Saban, but it has a lot more to do with the way we addressed it."
Similar to Jones, Hightower has had a bout with injury, suffering from an ACL injury in his sophomore year. Hightower was even called lazy by a National Football Post scouting report.
Motor tends to run hot and cold. Is a talented kid who has the skill set to dominate, but too often doesn't seem into the game and will get lazy.
Hightower had a message for those who don't think he's been the same since his ACL injury.
"I'm going to tell them that they haven't been watching me play," said Hightower. "In 2010 after the knee injury I made a lot more plays that I would have made before the knee injury."
Jones and Hightower aren't expected to light the league on fire upon their arrival in Foxboro, but after the Pats' defense had been diminishing since the days of Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison, it's good to see Belichick go after potential defensive difference makers early on.
With two more days left, Belichick and the Pats can still make some noise. So far, so good.
*Quotes from Jones and Hightower courtesy of WEEI.com.
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