James Sanders' rookie season didn't go quite as smoothly as he was hoping it would. He battled an ankle injury for most of the year and ended up seeing action in only 10 games. Being the tough-minded player he is, Sanders fought through the injury so he could get on the field but the ankle hindered him throughout the season.
"It's difficult being injured but you just try to stay positive and help the team as much as possible," Sanders said. "You want to get out there and play at 100 percent but sometimes that's not the case and you just do what you can to get on the field."
Now heading into his second season, Sanders is healthy and ready to take on a bigger role in the Patriots defense.
"I feel great right now," he said. "I've been working really hard this offseason and I feel like I'm ready to contribute on both special teams and at safety this year."
One thing the young safety found out last offseason was there is a big difference between playing college football and being in the NFL. Sanders worked hard in college but he believes in order to be successful at the pro level, it takes the ultimate commitment.
"Every day is a marathon," he said. "You come in the weight room and put it all on the table. Then you go run and do conditioning and you have to put it all out there, too. Every day it has to be 110 percent. You can't take any days off at this level. This is my career now. It's not like college where it's football but at the same time you have to worry about school. This is my job. If I'm not putting the time in, someone else will and they'll end up taking my job from me."
Even though he wasn't on the field much as a rookie, it didn't take long for the hard-hitting Sanders to catch the eye of fellow safety Rodney Harrison. Last year after the veteran was injured, he singled out Sanders when talking to the media.
"I've talked to James Sanders a lot," Harrison said a month after he himself was lost for the season with a knee injury. "I know James is going to go out there and hit. James is a talented player. He's smart and one of those rookies that has a lot more wisdom beyond his years."
Sanders has drawn comparisons to his mentor because of his physical style of play and he considers it an honor to learn from one the best safeties in the league. Working out with Harrison this offseason is a big reason why he feels more prepared heading into his second training camp. The two have become close friends since Sanders joined the Patriots.
"It's like a dream come true playing with Rodney," Sanders said. "To be able to come into the system and learn from a future Hall of Fame-type player is a great honor. He has taken me under his wing and shown me the ropes. It's great to have a guy like that helping me out. Rodney and I are really good friends and working with him shows me what it takes to be successful at this level."
Sitting next to Sanders just after he finished his workout, it was obvious from the muscles bulging out of his shirt that he's rock solid at 5-10, 210 pounds. Sanders was known for his big hits at Fresno State and while he's confident that he can be a physical presence in the Patriots secondary, he's not trying to be the next Rodney Harrison.
"No one can replace a Rodney Harrison," he said. "For me, I just have to worry about myself, work hard and be the best player I can be. I feel that our style of play is similar because we both like to make our presence known out on the field but I can't say I'm the next Rodney Harrison or anything like that. I can only worry about being the best player James Sanders can be."
Sanders – a fourth-round draft pick – finished his first NFL season with 14 tackles, a fumble recovery and an interception against Buffalo that he returned 39 yards for a touchdown. Even though the Patriots had the game well in hand at the time, that play was still memorable in a frustrating year for Sanders.
"I would say that was the highlight of my rookie season," Sanders said. "Just to be out there and make a play like that, it felt good. Especially when it feels like things aren't going your way personally because of the injuries. Even though[Tedy] Bruschi made a great play by tipping the ball right into my lap, I feel that interception helped me with my confidence to get back and contribute with the team."
Despite being a physical specimen who hits like a ton of bricks, Sanders will have to endure some tough competition in training camp. With the offseason signings of Mel Mitchell and Tebucky Jones, the Patriots currently have eight safeties on the roster, but Sanders may have the most upside of the group. If he can stay healthy and continues to progress under Harrison's tutelage, Sanders could be a pleasant surprise in the Patriots defensive backfield this upcoming season.
"My goal this year is to just come in every day, work hard and compete to the best of my abilities," Sanders said. "I can't worry about the guy next to me or the guy in front of me or behind me. I just have to worry about myself and play my game. If I can take care of that then everything else should fall into place."
Harrison is attempting to come back from a devastating knee injury he suffered last September but he may not be ready by opening day. So it's possible his understudy could get the nod in the starting lineup. If Sanders performs on the field like he and Harrison believe he can, 2006 could mark the dawning of a new enforcer in the Patriots secondary.