When the Patriots secondary took a few free agent hits this offseason, the team didn't panic.
Instead of replacing a big name (Asante Samuel) with another big name (e.g., DeAngelo Hall, Nnamdi Asomugha, or Lito Sheppard), New England took what has become a familiar route under head coach Bill Belichick. It went shopping for bargains.
Good Bill Hunting, if you will.
The Pats signed four free agent defensive backs, most notably cornerback Fernando Bryantand safety Tank Williams. Then, in April's NFL Draft, it selected a pair of corners, Colorado's Terrence Wheatleyand Auburn's Jonathan Wilhite. The Pats also brought in Dom Capers, the former head coach in Carolina and Houston, to coach the DBs.
As for returning players, incumbent starter Ellis Hobbscontinues to work his way back from two offseason surgeries (groin and labrum). He'll need to be at his best if he expects to earn the title of "top tier corner" that Samuel enjoyed the past couple of seasons in New England.
The team has several other returning veterans who will vie for playing time. Perhaps the most interesting to watch will be second-year man Mike Richardson, a draftee out of Notre Dame in '07 who showed promise during camp last summer before suffering a season-ending wrist injury.
At safety, the leader, of course, is Rodney Harrison. But expect returning starter James Sandersand newcomer Williams to push for more minutes as well. A wildcard here will be Brandon Meriweather, the team's first-round pick a year ago. He has the ability and experience to play either corner or safety, so where he winds up could shape the way the Pats' secondary evolves.
Capers will have plenty of evaluating to do once this group puts the pads on.
DBs - At a glance
Fernando Bryant (FA, Detroit), Lewis Sanders (FA, Atlanta), Jason Webster (FA, Buffalo), Tank Williams (FA, Minnesota), Terrence Wheatley (second round), Jonathan Wilhite (fourth round).
Asante Samuel (FA, Philadelphia), Randall Gay (FA, New Orleans), Eugene Wilson (FA, Tampa Bay).
NO. Player (Pos., Year)
25 Fernando Bryant (CB, 10th year)
30 Mark Dillard (S, rookie)
37 Rodney Harrison (S, 15th year)
27 Ellis Hobbs (CB, 4th year)
31 Brandon Meriweather (DB, 2nd year)
35 Mike Richardson (CB, 2nd year)
29 Lewis Sanders (CB, 9th year)
36 James Sanders (S, 4th year)
28 Antwain Spann (CB, 3rd year)
41 Ray Ventrone* (S, third year)
21 Jason Webster (CB, 9th year)
22 Terrence Wheatley (CB, rookie)
24 Jonathan Wilhite (CB, rookie)
26 Tank Williams (S, 7th year)
Training camp storyline:
Which of the new and/or emerging players will crack the starting lineup? This could be the most entertaining (i.e., competitive) position to watch this summer.
- Ventrone actually worked as a wide receiver during spring practices, but is still officially listed as a defender on the team's roster.