We asked our three Patriots reporters to make a bold prediction for training camp, which begins Thursday at Gillette Stadium:
Rookie Hightower will have a Mayo-type impact
There was once was a time when it would be highly unlikely to see a rookie play significant snaps in Bill Belichick’s defense, but Jerod Mayo changed all that in 2008. Mayo stepped in immediately and hardly came off the field.
Dont'a Hightower, the team’s second first-round draft choice (25th overall), is primed to do the same.
Already, word inside Gillette Stadium is that Hightower is showcasing a veteran’s know-how and a let’s-get-to-work attitude. That’s no surprise. He comes to New England from Alabama, where former Bill Belichick assistant Nick Saban is the coach, and has already said it has made the transition smoother than it might have been elsewhere.
Hightower fits in any defensive scheme, and Belichick has already compared his football smarts to Mayo’s, and his versatility to Mike Vrabel’s. When Belichick talks like that, as he did on SiriusXM NFL Radio in April, you know he’s excited about the possibilities.
Meanwhile, veteran defensive end Andre Carter called Hightower a beast, saying he didn’t realize how big he was (6-2, 270).
The Patriots entered the offseason in need of a few more defensive difference-makers, and they got one in Hightower. No need to wait in terms of setting him loose. Like Mayo in ’08, Hightower should make an early impact. -- Mike Reiss
Moore will emerge as one of the Patriots' top cornerbacks
On Thursday, Twitter follower @AvkarSiv astutely pointed out that none of the Patriots’ cornerbacks who began the 2009 season are still on the roster. That includes two second-round picks (Darius Butler and Terrence Wheatley).
With the exception of Asante Samuel, the Patriots have struggled to find a consistent option at cornerback in the past half-dozen seasons. First-round pick Devin McCourty flashed potential as a Pro Bowler his rookie season, only to struggle for most of last season.
As McCourty looks to regain his form, 2011 NFL interception leader Kyle Arrington seeks to maintain his level of play and Ras-I Dowling tries to emerge after a hip injury wiped out his rookie campaign, there is another player that should be added to that mix.
Last season, there was just something different about Sterling Moore, the well-spoken 21-year old who occupied a locker in a tight corner of the room often reserved for the team’s newcomers. Moore began the season on the Raiders’ practice squad but went on to start in three games for the Patriots, including a critical road win over the Jets in Week 10.
After several seasons of shoddy secondary play, Moore’s performance was surprisingly solid -- but not flawless -- for a fill-in. In the regular season finale, Moore intercepted two passes, including one he returned for a touchdown. In the AFC Championship Game, Moore broke up a Lee Evans catch in the end zone, saving the Patriots' season.
That tight corner of the Patriots’ locker room was jam-packed with reporters and cameras after that game. And Moore? He was impressively calm and collected.
It’s that sort of confidence many believe the Patriots have been lacking in their secondary. If the Patriots are looking for an aggressive cornerback who has flashed above-average ball skills, Moore could quickly rise to the top at a position that always seems to be in flux in New England. -- Mike Rodak
UDFA Bolden, not Addai, will be the fourth Patriots running back
Brandon Bolden may not have heard his name called during the draft, but he’s my early bet to emerge from the Patriots' undrafted free agent class as the top player. It’s easy to make the connection between another former Ole Miss running back who had success with the Patriots as an undrafted free agent (BenJarvus Green-Ellis), and there’s also aspects to Bolden’s game that are easy to like. He has a nose for the end zone (33 scores in college), he’s versatile (he had 32 catches as a junior) and tough, which was evident after he missed just one game with a slight ankle fracture during his senior year.
Addai has the edge in experience, but Bolden may prove to be the more athletic and explosive back, something that would serve New England well in its high-octane offense.
As for Addai, my concerns lie in his ability to stay healthy, as well as his ability to return to form after three pedestrian seasons (statistically) in the past four years. -- Field Yates