Rodney Harrison – Losing Harrison last year really crippled the Patriots defense. Some players can't be measured by just tackles and interceptions and Harrison is one of those players. After injuring his knee in the third game of the season, Harrison's leadership and mental toughness was sorely missed and impossible to replace. Now the question is: when will the leader of the Patriots secondary return? No one really knows the answer to that question for sure but don't expect the team or Harrison to rush his return to the field. At Harrison's age, it would probably be better to be cautious than hurry him back. The veteran is in tremendous shape and his work ethic is legendary, so starting the season opener is a possibility. However, the more likely scenario would be Harrison coming back around midseason and helping the team down the stretch and into the playoffs, much like Tedy Bruschi did last year. As we all found out last season, Harrison is impossible to replace but the team does have some good players who can hold the fort until he returns. One thing is for certain: it will be happy day in New England the first time Harrison steps foot on the field again.
Eugene Wilson – Wilson has been a key part of the Patriots defense since his rookie season but he struggled a little bit last year once Harrison went down, while also battling injuries himself. Something just didn't look right with Wilson last year. He's usually a physical player who is always around the ball but last season he would completely disappear in some games. Don't expect that trend to continue. Wilson has too much talent to think that his 2005 performance was nothing more than an aberration. He was present at mini-camp but didn't participate in a lot of drills. Because of that, some have speculated that he may be returning to corner but as of now, that is nothing more than a rumor. Wilson is the one safety who has the speed and coverage skills to play deep for the Patriots and match up against receivers and tight ends. His versatility gives Bill Belichick and Dean Pees a lot of flexibility in what they can do on defense. I suspect Wilson will be one of the starting safeties on opening day and at some point during the year, he and Harrison will be causing havoc together in the Patriots secondary like they have in the past.
Tebucky Jones – I really like the idea of bringing Jones back to New England. He never lived up to being a first-round draft pick but once he was moved to safety, he wasn't a complete washout either. Jones brings a physical presence to the secondary that the team lacked last year without Harrison in the lineup. Plus, Jones is versatile enough to do a lot of different things on the field. In mini-camp, the team was using him as a linebacker in some of their goal line packages. Jones was injured last year in Miami but two years ago in New Orleans he had the best season of his career, so he still has some gas left in his tank. I think Jones is one of those players who is an incredible athlete but doesn't always have great instincts on the football field. Because of this, I believe he has to be in the right system with the right coaching staff and New England is the perfect place for him. If Harrison isn't ready to start the season, there's a good chance Jones will line up next to Wilson on opening day. This could end being one of the more underrated signings by the Patriots this offseason.
James Sanders – Sanders is a guy I really like and a player who had a strong showing at mini-camp. He battled an ankle injury for most of his rookie season but Sanders has the physical style of play to eventually replace Harrison as the enforcer in the Patriots secondary. Sanders and Harrison have become close friends and the two work out together on a regular basis. Learning from one of the best safeties in the NFL can only help Sanders' development. He saw a lot of time at safety during mini-camp and appeared to have a good grasp of the system and showed the ability to stay with receivers down the field. Sanders probably won't begin the season in the starting lineup but he should provide quality depth at the safety position and is a player who could really blossom in the coming years.
Artrell Hawkins – Hawkins was a breath of fresh air for the Patriots last season. After playing cornerback his entire career, he came in midseason and provided some stability at the safety position for New England. He was solid in coverage and surprisingly very physical against the run. While he did a good job last year, Hawkins is probably better suited as a backup, rather than an every week starter. He'll be battling with Jones and Sanders to start the year at safety if Harrison can't go and it won't be a huge shock if he ends up on top of the depth chart. Hawkins did a good job at a position he hadn't played since early on in college and he should only get better now that he has had some time to learn the system. No one has a roster spot locked up but Hawkins proved himself to be valuable last year and as long as he has a good training camp, he looks to be a safe bet to land a roster spot.
Guss Scott – It's now or never for Scott. After battling injuries during his first two years in the league, he has to prove he can stay healthy and get on the field. Unfortunately for Scott, when he did get on the field last year, he struggled at times. Scott had trouble against some of the bigger tight ends and opposing teams noticed the mismatch and attacked him on a regular basis. In fairness to Scott, this was during a time when the entire defense was struggling but he was definitely part of the problem. With all the safeties on the roster, Scott is going to need a strong showing during training camp to prove he belongs on the roster. He has the physical ability, now he just needs to stay healthy and put it all together.
Mel Mitchell, Jarvis Herring, Raymond Ventrone – Mitchell has a really good chance to make the roster. He's not a great safety but he provides depth at the position and he's a terror on special teams. With Larry Izzo and Don Davis getting a little long in the tooth, Mitchell could start to take over the reigns as the Patriots special teams ace this year. Ventrone is my boy and he showed some skills over in NFL Europe but he's going to have a tough time beating out the guys listed above. Bubba hurt his shoulder and wasn't at mini-camp, so another year on the practice squad – where he shined last season for the Patriots – is his best bet to stick around New England. Herring will need to have an incredible camp to make the team but if he does, it will most likely be on the practice squad as well.
Overall – Everything comes down to Harrison and how effective he'll be once he comes back. If he is close to his old self by Thanksgiving, the Patriots secondary will be in good shape when the playoffs come around.
The good news is the team seems to have very good depth at the safety position this year. Wilson, Jones, Sanders, Hawkins and Mitchell should all contribute on both defense and special teams.
Wilson is entrenched at one safety position while Jones, Sanders and Hawkins will battle for the other spot until Harrison can play. If the veteran is ready to start the season then great but if not, the team has three players who look like they can come in and be effective. Jones and Sanders looked particularly good at mini-camp.
The safety position is a question mark but if Wilson regains his form, Jones and Sanders elevate their game and Harrison comes back as his old self, most of those questions should be answered by midseason.
Sullivan ArrestedAccording to a report in the Times-Picayune, Patriots defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan - who was recently acquired in a trade with the New Orleans Saints for receiver Bethel Johnson - was arrested in Georgia Sunday morning and charged with possession of marijuana, a seat belt violation, running two stop signs and playing loud music. Sullivan was hoping for a fresh start in New England but these recent developments obviously don't bode well for him.