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Replay: Patriots Unfiltered Thu May 23 - 02:00 PM | Tue May 28 - 11:55 AM

Pre-Draft Roster Rundown: Safety

With the current lack of depth at safety the position is one of many areas the Patriots could look to improve with their nine picks on draft weekend.

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            The final minutes of action in Super Bowl XXXVIII told the story of the depth the Patriots had at safety a year ago. A spot that started the 2003 season as the focal point of media and fan focus thanks to the release of defensive captain Lawyer Milloy ended up being one of the strengths of the team up until the final minutes of the final game.  

Throughout the regular season and playoffs rookie free safety Eugene Wilson and free agent addition Rodney Harrison were key components in a secondary that led the NFL in interceptions (29) and passes defensed (121). But with mere minutes remaining in the season Wilson and Harrison found their way to the sidelines with injuries and the lack of depth at the safety spot was highlighted for all to see by the Carolina Panthers offense. While rookie free agent Shawn Mayer and special teams player Chris Akins saw little regular defensive action throughout the season, the pair was thrown into the fire in the biggest game in all of sports and the team's lack of depth was exposed.

That said the two starting safeties played extremely well a year ago. Wilson finished his rookie campaign at his new position with 15 starts in 16 games played. He totaled 66 tackles, four interceptions and nine passes defensed while becoming one of the team's biggest hitters over the course of the season. While a return to corner, his college position, wouldn't be out of the question Wilson clearly proved he could play free safety at a high level in the NFL.

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            As much as Wilson had to prove himself for the first time in his rookie season, Harrison's challenge was to reestablish himself as one of the premier strong safeties in all of football. Well, consider that challenge met and surpassed. In his first season in New England the 10-year veteran started all 16 games and led the team with 140 tackles. The *Associated Press* All Pro added three sacks, three interceptions, 11 passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery as one of the most active members of a Patriots defense that led the NFL in points allowed. Last offseason's questions about Harrison losing a step and being on the downside of his career were not only squashed, they now seem flat out ridiculous.  

But the lack of depth at safety is still one of the many areas the Patriots could look to improve on this offseason. While Harrison (broken arm) and Wilson (leg injury) are expected to recover for 2004 action, little else at the position is set. The team already lost Akins to Miami through free agency and has yet to add bodies at the spot. Backup defensive back Antwan Harris is also an unrestricted free agent.

Mayer has an impressive background from his days at Penn State, he led the Nittany Lions in tackles in each of his final two seasons and finished his career with 252 stops, but the former rookie free agent still has a ways to go before establishing himself as a proven backup in the NFL. Mayer played mostly on special teams in his nine games as a rookie and ranked fifth on the team with 13 special teams tackles.

The only other safeties currently under contract with New England are veteran special teams standout Je'Rod Cherry, offseason veteran free agent addition Jason Perry and NFL Europe allocation Scott Farley. Cherry's defensive contributions are minimal at best and as a former Division III player Farley has a long road ahead of him. Perry is a four-year veteran who did not play in the NFL in 2003 and has played mostly in reserve action in 36 career games with the Chargers and Bengals.

So though the two starting spots appear to be claimed based on last season's action, a dip into the safety pool on draft weekend to improve overall depth would not be out of the question. The top safety prospect, considered a can't-miss type player, is Miami's Sean Taylor. New England would clearly have to trade up with a package of picks if it had any aspirations of acquiring the playmaking Hurricane and considering the many of the franchise's other needs that scenario wouldn't seem likely.

But while Taylor is expected to be a top 10 pick or better (despite a reportedly sub par Pro Day workout) the next tier of safeties is not as definitive. Guys like Sean Jones from Georgia, Stuart Schweigert from Purdue and Bob Sanders of Iowa as well as a handful of others make up the second group of safeties that could go on the first day of the draft. Other safeties that might go lower in the draft and could fit the bill in terms of building depth are names like Wake Forest's Quinton Williams or South Florida's J.R. Reed.

Either way, anyone looking for proof that New England could use an infusion of depth at safety need not look any further than the final minutes of the last game the team played. The safety spot might not be considered as high a priority as other areas on a team where depth paved the way to a Super Bowl championship a year ago, but there is always work to be done

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