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2008 Training Camp Preview: Secondary

Here’s the schedule for the training camp previews:
Thursday: Secondary
Friday: Linebackers
Saturday: D-Line
Sunday: O-Line
Monday: Tight Ends and Wide Receivers
Tuesday: Quarterbacks and Runningbacks
Wednesday: Special Teams and Coaching

Cornerbacks

Key Departures: Asante Samuel, Randall Gay
Key Arrivals: Fernando Bryant, Jason Webster, Terrence Wheatley

Breakdown

The major storyline for the 2008 Patriots defense will be the cornerback position. Gone are Asante Samuel and Randall Gay and in their place comes journeymen and unproven draft picks. It’s understood that Ellis Hobbs will remain as the right corner in the traditional No. 2 slot. He has made the best of his first few seasons in Patriots blue, but his height (listed as 5’9″ but probably more like 5’7″) and athletic ability has limited him to just six interceptions in his three seasons. Hobbs is a decent corner in the NFL but he would need to make leaps in bounds to be considered a true No. 1 and a replacement for Samuel.

As for the arrivals, Fernando Bryant (30, 5’10″) is entering his tenth season in the NFL but boasts just seven career interceptions. Bryant could be used as a consistent ‘work horse’ as he has started 109 games at cornerback in his career. This was not an earth shattering signing but Bryant could help the nickel and dime packages and perhaps improve under the tutelage of new defensive backs coach Dom Capers.

Jason Webster (30, 5’9″) has played with San Francisco, Atlanta and Buffalo in his nine year career. He has 11 interceptions in 87 career games 56 pass deflections. Like Bryant, Webster is not perceived as a long term solution at corner, as his size will allow him to help on nickel and dime packages. Webster showed a lot of promise in his first few seasons in San Fran, but a rash of injuries has marred his career. Webster broke his arm in week one last year and missed the rest of the season.

The Patriots drafted two rookie corners in hopes of turning them into long-term replacements in the secondary. Second round pick Terrence Wheatley (5’9″) was a second round pick of the Pats which surprised a lot of scouts and ‘experts’ who had Wheatley going much lower in the draft. Wheatley was known for his speed and special teams savvy at the University of Colorado, but he also played decent at corner as his 14 career interceptions ranks third in school history. Scouts feel he will need to step his game up in the coverage area to make it in the NFL. In the past the Pats have given rookies a lot of time to develop so don’t expect Wheatley to be playing all the much in the first half of the season. He could, however, make an impact from day 1 on special teams.

Probably the best hope for Patriots fans in replacing Asante Samuel lies with second year player Brandon Meriweather. Selected in the first round in the 2007 draft, Meriweather started slow and didn’t play much (or all that well) in the first half to three quarters of last season. If such a stat was kept, he probably would have led the league in dropped interceptions. But by the end of the regular season Meriweather began seeing some significant time on defense, not just special teams. For the season he registered 27 total tackles and three pass deflections. Meriweather played safety mostly in college but the Pats lined him up mostly in nickel and dime packages last season. He has decent size (5’11″ but plays bigger) and solid athletic ability. If he can has a good training camp, he should have a shot at starting at cornerback by mid-season.

Final Analysis

It would be nearly impossible to replace the impact Asante Samuel had without signing a No. 1 corner. It’s true that Samuel’s high interception totals did mask some coverage lapses at times (and his dropped interception on the last drive of some game last February leaves a bitter taste in this blogger’s mouth) but the likes of Fernando Bryant and Jason Webster are only stop-gaps at this point. The Patriots seem to like short corners for some reason and this team has plenty of them. The key will be how Brandon Meriweather fits in to the scheme, as he can bring some instant playmaking ability to the fold.

Safeties

Key Departures: None
Key Arrivals: Tank Williams

Breakdown

The safety corps should look a lot like last years, but the addition of Tank Williams should provide some ‘deep cover’ (excuse the pun) for injuries if they should happen. Rodney Harrison, 35, enters his 15th season in the NFL and is coming off a season which included 68 tackles, two sacks, seven pass deflections and one sack. While his intensity cannot be understated, his age and durability are starting to become issues. Harrison missed the first four weeks of last season due to an HGH suspension (remember that!?) and hasn’t played a full season since 2004. He’s an important part of the defense for sure but it’s unknown what can be expected from him in terms of numbers.

James Sanders, 24, once was a fourth round pick but has turned into a decent free safety for the Pats. In 2007 Sanders racked up 71 tackles, five pass deflections and two interceptions. Now entering his fourth season in the league, Sanders will be relied upon to keep the safety position solid and help out the weakened cornerback position. I expect Sanders to at least have a season like he did in 2007 but it wouldn’t shock me to see him improve. It may not be in the stats, but Sanders will be a key part of the secondary.

Tank Williams (6’2″ 223lbs) is a baaad motha known for big hits. Williams comes over from Minnesota to help spell Harrison and Sanders, though he seems big enough to play as a hybrid linebacker if needed. He boasts five career interceptions and 3.5 sacks in his career. I view him as a poor man’s Rodney Harrison who can come in, get the big hit and bring intensity to the defense. He seems to be a decent backup but is not a long term solution at the safety position.

Also seeing time at safety is Meriweather, but due to the lack of quality depth at cornerback, I see him playing there more than safety.

Final Analysis

Harrison’s 2007 campaign will be forever remembered by his failed attempt to break up the miracle catch by David Tyree on the Giants’ game winning drive in the Super Bowl. Some say he has lost a step, others say his intensity (and propensity for 15 yard penalties) are becoming a hindrance. I think he can still dial it up when necessary and needs to play well for the team to succeed, especially with the aforementioned cornerback problem. I expect James Sanders to step up and become a solid rock at safety and Tank Williams to provide us with some hits worthy of the pregame introduction video.

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