Patriots 2012 rookie review

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has often cited the offseason between a player's first and second seasons as one in which there is a big opportunity to make substantial improvements. That was the case for running back Stevan Ridley, who was able to funnel the natural talent Patriots fans witnessed in 2011 when he was a rookie and turn that into a workhorse season in 2012, becoming the Patriots' leading rusher and finishing seventh in the NFL in rushing yards.

The Patriots are counting on similar improvements from some of their rookies from 2012 into 2013, although they did receive substantial rookie contributions this past season.

Here's a look back at the seasons of those Patriot rookies who finished the season on the active roster, and a quick-hit thought on their 2013 season.

Defensive end Chandler Jones

Status: First-round pick

Stats: 45 tackles, 6 sacks, 3 forced fumbles

2012 review: A blazing start catapulted Jones to the forefront of the defensive rookie of the year discussion, but a slow second half was partly due to two ankle injuries. He totaled six sacks, but none after the bye week. Nonetheless, Jones emerged as the Patriots' best natural pass-rusher, and has the look of a player ready to make a big jump in 2013 as he grows into his frame.

2013 lookahead: Jones' offseason will start with getting healthy, but then will involve furthering and refining his physical talents. He has unique length, and the development of a more explosive first step could turn him into a double-digit sack artist in 2013.

Linebacker Dont'a Hightower

Status: First-round pick

Stats: 60 tackles, 4 sacks

2012 review: Hightower was a starter from Day 1, and a player who, according to Belichick, was typically productive when he was on the field. Smart, instinctive and powerful, Hightower has a lot to like about his game. He wasn't able to contribute in the sub defense much down the stretch in 2012, but played more than 50 percent of the overall defensive snaps.

2013 lookahead: Count on Hightower to play another big role, perhaps one similar to his this season. While not an elite athlete, Hightower can refine his pass coverage skills. As a big-bodied player, Hightower will be a critical part of the Patriots' run defense next season.

Safety Tavon Wilson

Status: Second-round pick

Stats: 41 tackles, 4 interceptions

2012 review: An early starter for the Patriots because of injuries to others, Wilson eventually settled into a special-teams and dime-defense role player. He had a few early interceptions, but struggled in defending the downfield passing game. He was a consistent member of the Patriots' core special teams.

2013 lookahead: The Patriots need depth at safety, and Wilson has the chance to prove he can be counted on in that role. He should figure into the special teams mix again, but has work to do to re-establish himself on defense.

Defensive end Jake Bequette

Status: Third-round pick

Stats: No stats accumulated in two games

2012 review: Bequette had what amounted to a red-shirt season in 2012, as he dressed for just two games and did not record a statistic. The team had good depth at defensive end, and Bequette found himself at the bottom of the pecking order.

2013 lookahead: It's too soon to suggest Bequette won't be a factor for the team, as many rookies need a full season to develop, mature and learn the nuances of the pro game. Bequette should play a more prominent role at the defensive end spot, where the Patriots likely will have good depth again.

Safety Nate Ebner

Status: Sixth-round pick

Stats: 14 tackles

2012 review: The billing on Ebner coming out of Ohio State was that he could become a fine contributor on special teams. That played out this season, as he was a core special-teamer with very good speed, toughness and tackling ability.

2013 lookahead: Core special-teamers don't often earn public praise, but as the Patriots have shown with Matthew Slater, they're critical to a team's success. Ebner should further develop into a key player in the kicking game.

Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard

Status: Seventh-round pick

Stats: 35 tackles, 3 interceptions, 1 forced fumble

2012 review: Dennard played in 10 regular-season games, becoming a starter and a key member of the secondary. In fact, the secondary was able to turn its production around in part because of Dennard's contributions. While not a big guy or speedster, he's a reliable, instinctive corner with good ball skills.

2013 lookahead: Assuming he stays on his current path of development, Dennard looks like an early candidate to start again in 2013. That is probably tied, at least in part, to how the team handles Aqib Talib's free agency and builds depth in the secondary. As a seventh-round pick, Dennard proved to be a shrewd investment.

Running back Brandon Bolden

Status: Undrafted free agent

Stats: 56 carries, 274 yards, 2 touchdowns

2012 review: Prior to his four-game suspension for a violation of the NFL's performance-enhancing substances policy, Bolden was on the precipice of becoming a big factor in the running game. Unfortunately, upon his return he was not able to carve that offensive role back out, playing mostly on special teams.

2013 lookahead: Based off of what we saw from Bolden early in 2012 and throughout training camp, there's little reason to believe he couldn't compete for carries next season.

Defensive end Justin Francis

Status: Undrafted free agent

Stats: 10 tackles, 3 sacks

2012 review: A late surge put Francis on the defensive radar, as he had three sacks in a Week 17 win and also started in the AFC Championship Game. With good quickness off the ball and a good ability to close, Francis is an upside player who should further develop next season.

2013 lookahead: It's about building off of the end of 2012 and consistency in 2013 for the Rutgers product, who has good versatility and power.

Defensive lineman Marcus Forston

Status: Undrafted free agent

Stats: 1 game played, 8 total snaps

2012 review: Forston spent much of 2012 on the practice squad, but was called back up to the active roster before the AFC Championship.

2013 lookahead: The Patriots need additional beef along the defensive line, and the former blue-chip high school recruit could factor into the rotation next season.

Offensive lineman Markus Zusevics

Status: Undrafted free agent

Stats: No stats accumulated

2012 review: Zusevics was activated to the roster on Thanksgiving, but did not play in a game.

2013 lookahead: A true wild card, as Zusevics missed training camp as he recovered from a pectoral injury suffered during the combine last February. Prior to that injury, he was considered a draftable offensive line prospect.