Kiper: Dennard ahead of schedule

In a recent piece posted on ESPN.com (Insider content), ESPN NFL Draft Analyst Mel Kiper, Jr. profiles a sampling of drafted rookies who are "ahead of schedule."

Redskins sixth-round running back Alfred Morris leads the way in Kiper's estimation, and Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, a seventh-round choice out of Nebraska, also cracks the list.

Dennard dropped to the seventh round after a quiet senior season and an arrest just days before the draft. He battled a hamstring issue throughout training camp that lingered into the regular season and was not active for the team until Week 5.

In his debut game against the Denver Broncos, Dennard recorded a pass break-up of Peyton Manning. His role has picked up in recent weeks, and he played every snap in the team's Week 8 win over the St. Louis Rams, according to colleague Mike Reiss. He also intercepted a pass in each of the past two games, tying him for the team lead in that category.

Dennard, from this vantage point, isn't the only late-round choice to give the Patriots a boost, as sixth-round safety Nate Ebner has contributed on both defense and special teams. The special teams work was anticipated, as that's the phase in which Ebner thrived in at Ohio State.

But the defensive snaps have been a plus from Ebner for the Patriots, as he's logged 34 through eight games. He played a career-high 15 defensive snaps this past Sunday and has provided depth at the safety spot where New England has endured a number of injuries.

From top choice Chandler Jones, who leads all rookies with six sacks, all the way to Dennard in the seventh round, the returns from this draft class already have been strong.