FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - It was a roller coaster season for the New England Patriots at the cornerback position. Ultimately, 2004 will be a season that will be remembered as the end of an era for one of the team's all-time greats, Ty Law, and one in which a group of inexperienced players stepped in to sustain an injury depleted position.
The position was one of strength coming out of training camp, with veterans Law and Tyrone Poole returning as starters, and second-year player Asante Samuel the team's nickel back following a solid rookie season. Undrafted rookie Randall Gay was the surprise of camp, playing well enough to beat out veteran Terrell Buckley and earn the No. 4 cornerback spot.
The position held true to form until the Week 5 win over Miami. For the final 12 games of the regular season, the Patriots cornerbacks would be revolving door of players in a constantly changing depth chart, a weekly exercise in finding healthy players to man the position.
]()It started with a knee injury that sidelined Poole against Miami, the first in a series of injuries that would sideline all four top cornerbacks for at least one game during the season. Poole returned to start following week against Seattle but was able to play only about a half, and soon underwent surgery that sidelined him over the next seven games before he made a final cameo appearance against Cincinnati in Week 14. He was placed on the injured reserve Dec. 18, effectively ending his season with five games played.
Poole, 33, finished with 17 tackles, an interception and three passes defensed in his 10th NFL season. A solid NFL starter who has tremendous speed but has always been dogged because of his size (5-8, 185), Poole proved to be steady but not spectacular in 2004 and will look to regain his starting spot in his third season with the team next season.
One of the top defensive players in franchise history since he was a first-round draft pick of the Patriots in 1995, Law's 10th NFL season ended abruptly. The last look at Law in a Patriots uniform was that of the four-time Pro Bowler being helped off Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on Oct. 31. Law, who is tied for the franchise record with 36 career interceptions, sustained a broken left foot and Lis Franc injury, and despite his best efforts was unable to return before the end of the regular season. Faced with his unknown status entering the playoffs, the Patriots placed Law on the injured reserve on Jan. 7.
Law was in Pro Bowl form before the injury, recording 26 tackles, an interception and three passes defensed in seven games. A true shutdown cornerback, Law is one of the few corners in the league who can match up with any receiver and also possesses savvy and instincts that allow the Patriots to devise a variety of coverages and schemes when he is on the field. Faced with a $12.5 million cap hit in the final year of a seven-year contract in 2005, the Patriots released Law on Feb. 25.
Perhaps the silver lining on an injury plagued season at the position was that the team got an extended look at a group of young players, a group that stepped up under the pressure of a Super Bowl season.
]()First among that group was Samuel, who stepped in at right cornerback for Poole and performed well in his first extended action as a starter. Samuel started four of five games for Poole until he suffered a shoulder injury against St. Louis that knocked him out for the next four games. He returned to the lineup against Cincinnati, starting the final four games of the regular season and all three playoff games for the Patriots.
The 24-year-old Samuel started eight of his 13 games in 2004, finishing with 34 total tackles, an interception and a team-high 12 passes defensed. He was a key in the Oct. 10 win over Miami, recording four tackles, a pass break up and a forced fumble in his second career start. He had three passes defensed in Week 14 against Cincinnati's talented receiving trio, including a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown. Although he doesn't have ideal size at 5-10 and 185 pounds, Samuel has excellent ball skills and is almost always in position to make plays. With 34 regular and postseason games played in his first two seasons, the former fourth-round pick is quickly developing player for the Patriots.
With Law and Poole done for the season, the Patriots turned to an unheralded and undrafted first-year player out of Louisiana State University, who turned in a remarkable rookie season to help remedy a dire situation. After playing his way onto the roster in training camp, Gay worked his way onto the field over the first five games of the season and made his first career start as a free safety against the New York Jets. He was thrust into a prominent role the following week with the injury to Law, and started all eight of his regular season games over the second half of the season and all three of the team's postseason games.
]()Gay, 22, proved to be a favorite of the coaching staff and many veterans because of his work ethic. Although he also lacks ideal size (5-11, 186), he displayed good awareness and instincts for a young player and also has a knack for the big play. He recorded his first career interception against Miami on Oct. 10, had another against Baltimore, and also had a 41-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Cleveland on Dec. 5. Gay led all Patriots cornerback with 38 total tackles this season while adding two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and six passes defensed.
The multitude of injuries inevitably forced a number of players into action at cornerback. In addition to three late-season starts made by starting safety Eugene Wilson at cornerback, one of the most intriguing stories of the season - both locally and nationally - was the multi-dimensional play of Troy Brown. The 12th-year player had the ultimate display of a team-first mentality in 2004, adding the role of nickel cornerback to his duties at wide receiver and on punt returns. If it wasn't impressive enough that the 33-year-old Brown was able to temporarily fill a void for the secondary, he played well enough in the role to hang on to the assignment through the rest of the season.
Brown's debut on defense came in the Patriots 40-22 win over St. Louis on Nov. 7, when he collected three tackles and a pass defensed as the team's nickel back. Although he often looked very much like an offensive player playing defense, Brown gradually became more comfortable in the role, collecting 17 total tackles, five passes defensed and finishing second on the team with three interceptions. He recorded his first career interception against Buffalo on Nov. 7, and then had interceptions in back-to-back games against Cleveland and Cincinnati.
Earthwind Moreland was signed off the practice squad on Nov. 6 and saw action in nine games. He made starts against Buffalo and Kansas City, but was beaten for two long touchdowns in the Patriots 27-19 Monday Night win over the Chiefs. Moreland, who finished the season strictly as a special teams player, had 13 total tackles. Omare Lowe, who was signed and re-signed from the practice squad on two occasions for his final release in December, played in a reserve role in three games. In a final effort to fill-out the position heading into the playoffs, veteran Hank Poteat was signed as a free agent on Jan. 10 to the fill Law's roster spot. The 27-year-old Poteat, in his fourth NFL season, played in all three playoff games and will have a chance to make the roster in training camp.
Position Analysis: The Patriots will miss the elite level of play from Law, but proved they could continue to win games against most teams with the likes of Samuel, Gay, Brown and Wilson at cornerback this season. Samuel made huge strides in 2004, moving from the inside nickel position to playing on the outside without much difficulty. The game experience earned by Samuel and Gay this season should pay dividends to the group next season, which was made deeper by the addition of Duane Starks in a trade from Arizona. Starks, 30, proved early in his career with Baltimore that, when healthy, he's among the best coverage corners in the NFL. If Starks can return to that level with the Patriots he should have his sights on a starting position, leaving Poole and Samuel to compete on the opposite side. If veterans Poole and Starks maintain starting positions, Samuel would represent one of the better nickel cornerbacks across the league. Gay is also intriguing in that he can play both cornerback and safety, giving the team a number of options when he is on the field.
While the position holds fewer certainties heading into next season without Law, with veterans Poteat and Ike Charlton also in the mix for roster spots, the Patriots shouldn't be plagued by depth concerns at the position heading forward. Similar to the other cornerbacks, Starks (5-10, 174) doesn't posses great size. While they decided to acquire Starks via a trade instead of signing a free agent, the Patriots may be interested in cornerback with size on the first day of the NFL Draft. In what is considered to be a corner-heavy draft, with as many as 11 expected to go in the first two rounds, players like Michigan's Marlin Jackson, LSU's Corey Webster or Oregon State's Brandon Browner could be on the Patriots radar.
Past Position Breakdowns:Feb. 18: Running Backs
Feb. 22: Tight Ends
Feb. 23: Wide Receivers
Feb. 28: Offensive Line
March 3: Quarterbacks
March 9: Special Teams
March 10: Defensive Line
March 14: Safeties