INDIANAPOLIS – The development of James Sanders was one of the brighter spots in New England's defensive secondary this past season – what with Rodney Harrison serving a suspension to start the year and Eugene Wilson either hurt or inactive for much of it.
With questions abounding at the cornerback position as well, the need for versatile players who can play either on the edge or in the middle of the field seems to be a growing need for the Patriots.
In this year's NFL Draft, there are a number of talented players at free and strong safety, and nearly every one of the top prospects has spoken at some point with the Patriots (players listed alphabetically).
Simeon Castille (6-0, 195) Alabama
Castille played mostly corner and nickel in Tuscaloosa, but he feels he's willing and he'll be able to make the switch to safety in the NFL.
"I think being able to play the nickel and the corner has helped me a lot, and being able to move outside and play inside, just being willing to play safety, and just having the athleticism to play both, I think helps me a lot," he said Sunday.
"I think it's going to help me a lot, being able to play corner, nickel, and safety," he added. New England always puts an emphasis on its players being versatile, which may be why they're attracted to Castille.
"I've been interviewed by a lot of teams, and the Patriots have been a team that I've had interviews with," he revealed. "So, they're being one of the top teams in the NFL every year, it's definitely an honor for them to consider me."
He also noted that the Patriots defensive secondary could look a lot different in 2008, and that he could see himself being part of it.
"I've been trying to look into a little bit of that. Asante Samuel might not be back, and Rodney Harrison is getting into the later years of his career … you know, that would be a great place to play."
Castille also said playing in an NFL-type system under Alabama head coach Nick Saban, a member of the Bill Belichick coaching tree, will help him adapt to the complex defenses at the next level.
Marcus Griffin (5-10, 201) Texas
A lot of talk this time last year focused on Griffin's fraternal twin brother, Michael, who many Draftniks thought would be taken by the Patriots in the first round. Maybe they'll get their chance at the other Griffin this time around.
"Well, at this point, I'd be glad if New England did pick me up," he declared. "If there's an opportunity for me to go there and play, I'm going to give it 100 percent."
Griffin spoke fondly of his friend and former Texas Longhorn teammate, Patriots TE David Thomas.
"I remember that he was a great player and off the field, he was a great dude, like he was on the field. I remember his hard work during practice and off the field. And you can see it led to him having a great career at UT and now at New England.
"I had a chance to see him this year when he came down to UT. Every time we see each other we talk to each other and he gives me a few pointers. And he just told me to stay positive."
Kenny Phillips (6-2, 212) MiamiPhillips is leaving Miami after his junior season, thanks in part to the lessons he learned from former Hurricane and current Patriots DB Brandon Meriweather.
"He was a big factor, especially my freshman year," Phillips recalled Sunday. "When I first came in, he was the one who taught me the plays, he let me stay with him in the summer so I could go back and forth [to campus]. He really just took me under his wing and taught me everything that I know. I talk to him about every week."
Being reunited with Meriweather in NE is a possibility that Phillips says he's considered.
"I would enjoy it. I got used to playing with him. Then his time came to move on the to next level, and if we reunite, that would be great."
Phillips went on to say that Meriweather gave him some advice when he decided to enter the NFL Draft early.
"[He said] just basically make sure it's the right decision for you. Don't do it because of the money situation or anything like that. Just make sure you know in your heart that you made the right decision."
Phillips hasn't yet spoken with Patriots scouts, but he has interviews scheduled Sunday night and Monday with a number of clubs. New England could be one of them, he said.
Jamar Adams (6-2, 212) Michigan
Many Michigan players say their team is like a family, even when older players graduate or go on to the NFL. So, it's no surprise that Adams keeps in touch with former Wolverine and now Pats LB Pierre Woods.
"Yeah, Pierre is a great guy," said Adams. "The best thing about Pierre is he is a genuine guy, a Michigan guy, he always cares about Michigan and the former players. I like to talk to Pierre, see how he is doing, get a feel on how the NFL is treating him. I talk to him maybe once a month."
What's the best advice Woods has given Adams?
"Not to worry about where you get drafted [which team and what round]," Adams replied. "If you get your foot in the door, take full advantage of. Be persistent and keep working hard."
Working hard is a phrase the Patriots like to preach to their players, but after talking with Patriots scouts at the Senior Bowl, there's something else Adams likes about New England's approach to football.
"The best thing I like about the Patriots is they talk strategy, and that is what I like to talk about, so that was a good meeting."
Jamie Silva (5-11, 204) Boston CollegeSilva, who also returned punts this past season at The Heights, has been working with noted speed coach Tom Shaw down in Florida in preparation for the Combine.
The New England native (he's from Rhode Island) has followed the Patriots his whole life, and could fit the team's mold of a seemingly underrated player who finds a way to overachieve.
"I talked to [New England] when I was at the East-West Shrine Game, and had some good conversations," Silva revealed. "They just told me what they liked about me, and that it's a long process, and just finish it out."
It's crossed his mind that he could continue his football career in New England, with the Pats defensive secondary potentially in a rebuilding mode this year, but he'll be happy wherever he winds up.
"I feel like I can contribute wherever I go … I'm just hoping one team takes me and gives me an opportunity to be on the field."
A stellar running back in high school, Silva made the switch to defense in college and has excelled there as well. That versatility and athleticism could be just what the Patriots will be looking for.
Tom Zbikowski (5-11, 211) Notre Dame
Having played at Notre Dame under former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, you'd think Zbikowski would be somewhat familiar with New England's style of play. He is, of course, but maybe more so due to former Pats DB Corwin Brown, who these days is the Irish defensive coordinator.
"I think having coach Brown, coming in, bringing in the 3-4, not too many college teams run a 3-4," Zbikowski observed Sunday. His strength, he feels, is his toughness, both physical and mental.
"I think [my strengths are] physical toughness and also having a knack for being a playmaker, with fumble recoveries and forced fumbles and interceptions. When you're moving up to the next level, for a defensive back technique is going to be the biggest thing, so you've got to be working on it all the time. No matter how good you think it is, you've always got to improve. You get tight ends and wide receivers running 4.3s, 4.4s, you don't have much room for error."
Which is why Zbikowski understands the importance of film study, something the Patriots stress with their players.
"I think that's one of the things I learned a lot this year, how much film you have to watch to be prepared," said Zbikowski. "I just love playing the game. I'd strap it up any time and play. I wasn't really focused on film work until this year – how much you have to learn to be successful."
A playmaker on special teams as well, Zbikowski returned punts for Notre Dame throughout his college career.
"Obviously that's the best way for you coming in to make the ball team, when you can show them you can play on special teams," he noted.
Another key to the Pats success has been their ability not to get too high with the highs or too low with the lows. Zbikowksi, who's faced his share of criticism at Notre Dame, seems prepared to take that approach in the pros.
"You have to tune it out," he said of his critics, "because if you listen to everything said about you … I have two left feet and I can't chew gum and walk at the same time, you know? You really can't listen to what they say. You can't really listen to the positives, also, and let it go to your head. You just have to be as focused as you can."
Sunday Combine Notebook
Future Combine Locations
According to Jeff Foster, President of National Football Scouting (a separate organization that runs the NFL Combine and works with 19 other pro clubs with their scouting needs), the next two Combines will be held inside Lukas Oil Stadium, the Colts new home. He said the RCA Dome is scheduled to be demolished, with a new Indiana Convention Center being built on that site. In all likelihood, the Combine will return to Indy in 2011, but at this point, it's not official. However, Foster added that there are no discussions at this point to move the Combine to another city. He said he's "hopeful" the Combine will remain in Indy long-term.
Not every player at the Combine is taking part in every workout, either by choice (they work out at their Pro Days at school) or because of injury. Rod Marinelli, the Lions head coach, was asked Sunday if those who don't take part in the drills are at a disadvantage.
"It's going to happen," he stated. "Guys may have an injury or wait until they get back to campus. I just look, what are they doing here and evaluate what's done here. And then if we go to their campus, I'll evaluate that. But the key thing is still what their film is like."
Castille is the son of former Denver Bronco DB Jeremiah Castille … Free safety Nehemiah Warrick is first cousin to Peter Warrick, the former Cincinnati Bengal … Zbikowski recently shot an Under Armor commercial with former Irish teammate Jeff Samardzija, who's now a pitcher in the Chicago Cubs organization … Zbikowski also has pro boxing experience, having fought in Madison Square Garden. He pondered which is tougher: training for football or boxing. "They're both tough. It's really hard to say," he replied. "But leading up to this feels like it is getting ready for a fight. You're training for so long -- seven, eight weeks – for one event [in this case, the Combine]. It's more like a fight than you do when you're getting ready for a football season." … Silva, known for his flowing, light brown mane, joked, "Once every 20 months I shave it off. It's about that time again." … Cornerback Leodis McKelvin of Troy, a school with a history of losing seasons, may have had the quote of the Combine when he spoke of his college team in this way: "We always fight to the end. We always lose in the end."