In the beginning, there was light: Matt Light. And Damien Woody. And Richard Seymour. And Tom Brady. Two decades later, the Patriots are scrambling to find some semblance of identity in the post-Brady era.
Once perennial Super Bowl contenders, the Patriots are no longer guaranteed to win 11 or 12 games a season, and they’ve started to depend more on their rookies to step up.
Following the 2021 NFL Draft, top prospects like Mac Jones have colossal shoes to fill, and as with any draft pick, players have the potential for either an explosive rookie year or an utterly and catastrophically disappointing one. Can Christian Barmore take over the top defensive tackle role? Will Ronnie Perkins find a starting linebacker spot on a team loaded with Matt Judon, Kyle Van Now, and Anfernee Jennings? Could Rhamondre Stevenson get a shot at running back this season?
So many questions, so few answers. The Patriots have been slammed for having some pretty mediocre draft picks in the last decade or so, but to give credit where it’s due, Bill Belichick has occasionally struck gold (in Bill we forever trust). These are five Patriots players who’ve had the best rookie seasons in recent history.
5. Dont’a Hightower, 2012
Fellow rookie Chandler Jones recorded similar end-of-season numbers as Dont’a Hightower, but Hightower is still making an impact for New England, as he has since Day 1. Selected in the first round (25th overall) of the 2012 NFL Draft, Hightower impressed Belichick so much in training camp that he became an opening day starter alongside Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes. Bringing the Alabama product on board paid immediate dividends, and Hightower proved to be a natural leader on the field.
The then-22-year-old got his season off to a stellar first game against the Titans, recording five combined tackles and returning a fumble recovery for a six-yard career-first touchdown. He started 13 games and finished with 60 combined tackles, four sacks, three pass deflections, and two fumble recoveries – not bad at all for a rookie.
As an off-the-ball linebacker who has also proven himself capable of lining up outside the formation as an edge defender, Hightower became a symbol of New England stalwart defense the moment he first stepped onto the field. Since his blistering rookie season, Hightower has been named a three-time team captain, and he’s earned the nickname “Mr. February” due to his game-changing plays that have helped the Patriots win three Super Bowls.