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2006 positional review: Defensive backs

Rodney Harrison2006: When Harrison is healthy, the Pats defense is noticeably better. He's the NFL's all-time leader in sacks by a defensive back (28.5), and is the only player in league history to notch at least 25 career sacks and 30 career interceptions. A pole of NFL players ranked him the dirtiest player in the league early this season, but he's a true team player and a heck of a motivator. Not only is he a good speaker, he's reputed to be one of the hardest workers in the weight room and out of the spotlight. His only problem has been durability.
Outlook: He turned 34 in December, and suffered injuries to both knees over a 14-month period, limiting him to 13 games over the last two seasons. He also suffered a fractured shoulder blade in Week 9 between those two knee injuries. That's a pretty severe list at any age, but Harrison said recently that he plans to return again in 2007.

Asante Samuel
2006: If you haven't heard Samuel's name as somebody who stepped it up this year, you're not listening. He and Denver's Champ Bailey set the regular-season bar with a league-leading 10 interceptions. He posted three multi-pick games this year, posting a career-high three interceptions against the Super Bowl-bound Bears in Week 12. Samuel led the team with 24 passes defensed this year, adding nine more in the postseason. He stayed hot after the regular season closed, returning two picks for touchdowns in the Pats three playoff games.
Outlook: Samuel's contract is scheduled to expire in the beginning of March, and the Pats haven't re-signed him yet. He could potentially be tagged as New England's franchise player, which would require him to stay one more year, but the team has made no announcements about who they'll franchise, if anybody.

Ellis Hobbs
2006: Finishing out his second season with a valiant effort against the Colts, Hobbs' play was inconsistent at times during the 2006 season. He showed great heart by playing with a fractured wrist bone, wearing a splint from Week 5 until the end of the season to protect the tender wrist (injured in Week 3 game against the Broncos). He didn't start against Miami or Houston, but made himself very useful as a return man. He regained his starting role before the regular season came to a close.
Outlook: The Pats have him locked up through 2009, and he should be able to grab more picks when his hand is healed and free from the bulky splint. He's got wheels, but needs to work on playing with better leverage and staying in position against wilier wideouts.

Artrell Hawkins2006: After making the switch from corner to free safety as a veteran, Hawkins continued to step up his game and his presence on the field in his ninth NFL season. He successfully took over for an injury-plagued Eugene Wilson, tying Samuel with a secondary-leading 62 tackles. He got beat deep a handful of times, but filled in with poise and consistency.
Outlook: He'll be in the final leg of a three-year contract in 2007.

Eugene Wilson
2006: Wilson was plagued by a hamstring injury during the first few weeks of the season, sitting out Week's 4 and 5 before unsuccessfully trying to return in the Oct. 22 game against the Bills. He was placed on injured reserve, ending his season before it had a chance to really begin. Ideally, he would have been the one to step up when Harrison went down.
Outlook: He's still under contract, and is one of the fastest players on the team when his legs aren't bothering him. If he's healthy, he and Hawkins may have to battle for a starting slot next year, should Harrison return.

James Sanders
2006: After hitting a low in the loss to the Broncos where his botched coverage was responsible for the touchdown pass to Javon Walker, Sanders bounced back nicely to fill in for Harrison late in the season. This was his second season since being selected by the Pats in the fourth round of the 2005 NFL Draft. He stepped up his game this year, notching starts in all three of the playoff games.
Outlook: He'll need to work on improving some of his coverage technique, but proved to be an excellent open-field tackler and all-around tough player. According to the NFL Players Association, he's under contract through 2008.

Chad Scott:
2006: A 10-year veteran, Scott was bumped around, grabbing a handful of starts at both cornerback positions as well as one start at strong safety. He's tough and versatile, but didn't play well enough to lock himself into a starting role.
Outlook: His contract carries him through next season, but nothing seems set in stone for the soon-to-be 33-year-old.

Ray Mickens
2006: Mickens relieved wideout Troy Brown of his occasional defensive duties this year by stepping in midseason to handle the Patriots nickel responsibilities.
Outlook: He matched up with some tough tight ends, but will likely have to battle for a roster spot in training camp.

Willie Andrews, Antwain Spann and Rashad Baker
2006: Andrews will likely stick around as a special teams contributor. He was an excellent returner in college at Baylor, and proved he'll play tough wherever he's needed in training camp when he took reps at receiver. Spann and Baker subbed in, and Baker grabbed some playoff experience in the AFC title game when Hawkins went down
Outlook: These guys will need to work hard to find a role next season. Baker will be a restricted free agent and Spann will be an exclusive rights free agent.

Randall Gay, Mel Mitchell, Gemara Williams, James Patrick and Tebucky Jones2006: Gay, Mitchell, Williams and Jones all wound up on season ending injured reserve. Jones is a big safety and a hard hitter who's played well on special teams as a vice man.
Outlook: Patrick was on the practice squad when the season came to a close, and the other seven practice squad guys were immediately signed. He could be moving on soon. Gay's a restricted free agent, so he could be slotted in the new second-round tender. That means that if another team were interested, the Pats would receive a second-round pick for him as compensation if he left.

Analysis:
The Patriots secondary played like they weren't a patchwork group this season, with plenty of guys filling in. However, the whole unit is wide open entering 2007. Defensive backs make up a large percentage of the team right now, so there will likely be some departures from this group. Samuel is the biggest question mark, since he could potentially be franchised before entering free agency and still be traded. This is a unit that the Patriots will likely try to shore up before next year to help solidify the defense, which aside from the line, is in flux.

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