Asante Samuel – Samuel is the most experienced and consistent corner on the Patriots roster. He can get beat down the field at times and it can be argued that he's not a true No. 1 corner but there are a lot of players starting in the NFL at his position that aren't nearly as productive as Samuel has been. He looked good in mini-camp breaking on the ball and staying with receivers. Samuel took some heat last year for not making enough big plays but I think that's because some in this area are so used to watching Ty Law. Law is the kind of premier corner that doesn't come around very often, so comparing Samuel to him is unfair. He may not rack up double-digit interceptions but Samuel is a solid cover corner who is also very physical. He actually had two of the most bone-jarring hits of the 2005 season when he wiped out both Ricky Williams and Jeb Putzier. A free agent at the end of this season, all signs point to Samuel having the best year of his career in 2006.
Ellis Hobbs – While Samuel is the team's most consistent corner; Hobbs has the most upside. I've written in the past that he has that "it" factor that just can't be explained. I have no problem saying that I believe Hobbs will be a future Pro Bowler. He has great instincts on the ball and the attitude one needs to be a superstar at that position. Just think about how far Hobbs came last season. I remember he was the first person I talked to the week before the Steelers game when I first started working here. I was doing a story on special teams and he had some trouble as the gunner during the Carolina game, so I wanted to ask him about it. At that time (and I'm not making this up) Hobbs was a shy kid sitting in his locker and when he talked, he kind of mumbled with his head down. Hard to believe now, huh? Then, two months later, he's in the starting lineup making big plays for a Patriots defense that showed a lot of improvement over the last half of the season. That's a big leap for a rookie and now it seems like Hobbs has been in the league for eight years. He's always practicing with tremendous energy and his confidence level is through the roof. Hobbs isn't the biggest guy but he plays much bigger than his size. He times his jumps well and does a good job of going up and fighting for the ball. I keep thinking back to that shy kid I first talked to last September and the strides he made last year. Then I think of how much better he's going to be this year and it makes me believe the Patriots secondary is going to be much better than some people are projecting, even if Ty Law doesn't return. Hobbs won't make the Pro Bowl this year because he doesn't have the name recognition but I predict he makes a trip to Hawaii following the 2007 season.
Randall Gay – Gay started on the Super Bowl team two years ago but with Hobbs now in the mix, he's probably looking at being the nickel corner this year. Gay didn't participate in mini-camp but he should be ready once training camp arrives. The thing that gives Gay an advantage over some of the other defensive backs fighting for a job is he has experience in the system and he can play both corner and safety. That point can't be expressed enough. If a player can line up at more than one position it gives them a distinct advantage over someone who can't because everyone knowsBill Belichick loves versatility. Some people think Gay will be in the mix to possibly start at corner but I just can't see him unseating Hobbs or Samuel. As long as he stays healthy, Gay should make the team but it will probably be as the third or fourth corner and backup to the starters.
Chad Scott – Here's a guy a lot of people kind of forgot about but he looked very good at mini-camp and has a great chance of making the team in my opinion. Scott fits into the Patriots system because he's a very physical corner and he can also play some safety. Actually, the team was using Scott as a safety in their goal line defense during mini-camp. Scott isn't going to come in and start but he's a veteran who has valuable experience and as Patriots fans are well aware of, the team can never have enough quality corners in case the injury bug hits. Scott only played three games for the Patriots last year before injuring his shoulder but he appeared to be 100 percent in mini-camp. As of right now I would say Scott has a good shot of securing a roster spot, especially if he continues to impress during training camp.
Eric Warfield – I worked for a Chiefs magazine before coming to the Patriots and ironically, I did a couple of stories on Warfield while I was there. I was a little surprised when the Patriots signed him because he had a lot of trouble in Kansas City playing press coverage and I was interested in watching him at mini-camp. What I saw at mini-camp is what I was afraid of when the Patriots signed Warfield. He just doesn't look comfortable in their system. I know he's new and it may take him time to get adjusted to things but all I could think of when I saw him out on the field wearing No. 23 was: "The Patriots re-signed Duane Starks?" I'm not trying to be harsh but Warfield gave receivers way too much cushion and in my opinion, simply lacks the instincts that players like Samuel and Hobbs have to be an effective corner. It's still early and Warfield could show up at training camp and set the world on fire but after mini-camp, I would have Scott ranked ahead of him. I actually think with his lanky frame, Warfield may make a better safety than corner, but that's for the coaches to decide.
Hank Poteat – No one can predict what will happen this season but there is one thing that's safe to assume: whether he makes the team or not, Poteat will be a Patriot at some point during the year. I like to call him "Pinch" Poteat because the Patriots can sign him in a pinch if they need depth at corner at any point during the season. Poteat will have a battle on his hands to beat out the veterans who are above him on the depth chart and maybe some of the younger guys but for a player who keeps leaving and coming back, Poteat hasn't really played all that bad in his limited opportunities. Even if he doesn't make the final roster, "Pinch" should keep his cell phone close by.
Willie Andrews – Andrews is an intriguing prospect. Normally defensive backs out of Baylor who are selected in the final round of the draft have a tough time making the team but I really like Andrews' chances. Not only as a backup cornerback but also as a return man. Out of all the players who returned kicks during mini-camp, Andrews seemed to be the most comfortable, as well as the most explosive. This kid has game-breaking speed and he showed it off once he got into the open-field while returning kickoffs. Andrews was also impressive at the rookie mini-camp. He was the only player on the field who could stay with Chad Jackson. Andrews probably has a ways to go before he lines up on defense but if he can earn a spot on the roster as a return man, it will give him time to develop as a cornerback as well. A team can't ask for much more than that out of their last pick in the draft.
Vernell Brown, Antwain Spann, Gemara Williams – These three young corners are probably fighting for spots on the practice squad. Spann played well in NFL Europe before getting injured and Brown flashed some potential every now and then during mini-camp. Spann missed mini-camp and Williams didn't really do anything to stand out in my eyes. There is a lot of competition at defensive back this year but it won't be a surprise if one or two of these players ends up on the practice squad.
Overall – A year after suffering numerous injuries in their defensive backfield, the Patriots are hoping for some better luck in 2006. I know there's no Ty Law on this list but I really like the Patriots top four corners. Samuel and Hobbs are a solid starting tandem, while Gay, Scott and Warfield provide some good depth at the position.
At first look it appears there isn't a superstar among this group but I think that will change this year with the development of Hobbs. He was all over receivers during mini-camp and even when he got beat, it was usually because of a perfectly thrown pass by Tom Brady. If Hobbs turns into the player I think he can become, the Patriots secondary may wind up being a lot better than some people are predicting.
Scott and Warfield add veteran insurance policies in case of injuries. I'm looking forward to watching Warfield in training camp to see if he's picked up the system and shows improvement from min-camp. If he does, he has a good chance of making the team because like Gay and Scott, he has the ability to play both safety and corner.
As a whole, cornerback isn't the strongest position on the team but I wouldn't call it a weak link either. If the front seven plays well like it did at the end of last season, this group will have plenty of opportunities to make big plays. When those opportunities present themselves, unlike last year, they have to go out and make the plays. Belichick preaches creating turnovers and after only registering 10 interceptions in 2005, you can bet that's an area the team has spent a lot of time working on this offseason.