As part of the defensive backfield, the safety position contributed to New England's turbulent 2008.
Early in training camp, the story was Tank Williams, a versatile veteran free agent with a history of injury problems. The Pats defensive coaches thought they could use Williams both as a safety and an inside linebacker in certain situations. And for a while, Williams was spending more practice time closer to the line of scrimmage than away from it.
But during the preseason, Williams suffered another devastating injury and was placed on IR, thus ending what looked to be a promising experiement.
To make matters worse, veteran Rodney Harrison, the vocal and physical leader of the group, was lost for the season after just six games. A thigh injury suffered in the blowout of Denver did him in.
]()From that point on, second-year player Brandon Meriweather, who'd been playing a reserve role, stepped up and started the remainder of the season at Harrison's strong safety spot.
Meriweather took full advantage of the opportunity.
His four interceptions not only led the team, but were also the highest total by a Pats safety since Lawyer Milloy'ssix in 1998. A considerable achievement, given that the knock against Meriweather following his rookie campaign a year ago was his propensity for dropping seemingly catchable passes. Meriweather acknowledged as much, explaining during training camp that he'd worked diligently during the offseason to improve his hands.
The former Miami Hurricane product also finished third on the team in tackles and had two of the most memorable plays of 2008: a pair of strip-sacks that helped seal the come-from-behind win in Seattle and secure the lopsided victory over Arizona.
]()Alongside him, free safety James Sanderscontinued to develop as a starter. He missed just two games due to an abdomen injury (at Oakland and versus Arizona), finished sixth on the team in total tackles, and registered an INT against the Broncos. Throughout the season, both Sanders and Meriweather continued to contribute on special teams as well.
Much like their counterparts at cornerback, the safeties rotated in an out, and nearly everyone on the roster saw action at some point.
Lewis Sanders, the veteran free agent corner, frequently took reps at safety during the '08 season. Splitting time between the practice squad and the active roster, Antwain Spannappeared in 10 games.
At the bottom of the depth chart, rookie Matthew Slaterand veteran Ray Ventronespent the bulk of the season at wide receiver, but would often practice with the defensive backs. Of the two, only Slater was inserted for a few plays at safety in games. Ventrone came to New England as a safety, but was later converted to wideout. Their main roles, however, were as special teams regulars, and both made significant contributions in that regard.
The biggest question marks remain Harrison and Williams. The former has said recently in television interviews that he is planning to make an announcement about his future very soon. He is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, but it's unclear if he will continue to play football. Williams is also set to become a free agent again, and the Pats must decide if his potential-versus-injury ratio is worth the investment.
A decision also must be made regarding James Sanders, whose rookie deal is about to expire. In addition, Lewis Sanders is free to negotiate with other teams, but his versatility may entice New England to bring him back.
Meriweather and Slater are locked up through '11 and Spann is signed through '10. Ventrone is an exclusive rights free agent this offseason.
Like the cornerback position, New England will almost certainly look to add to this area of the secondary in the coming months, either through free agency, the NFL Draft, or both.
THE SAFETY ROSTER
(players listed alphabetically, as of January 2009)
37 – Rodney Harrison * #
31 – Brandon Meriweather
36 – James Sanders #
29 – Lewis Sanders #
18 – Matthew Slater
28 – Antwain Spann
41 – Ray Ventrone ^
26 – Tank Williams * #
- = Ended 2008 on Injured Reserve
= Scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent^ = Exclusive rights free agent
Up nextin the Position Snapshot series: quarterback, coming Monday, February 2. Tomorrow, a sneak peek at Matt Light's upcoming Super Bowl commercial, complete with photos.