It is a widely accepted belief that a Super Bowl winner must benefit from the fortune that good health provides. Last year's New England Patriots bucked that trend by using 42 different starters amidst a rash of injuries on the way to a 17-2 championship season.
But perhaps the one area the Patriots could ill afford to lose any able bodies, and didn't, was in the secondary where only Ty Law, Tyrone Poole, Rodney Harrison, Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel received any significant, meaningful playing time. Beyond those five contributors, the cupboard was relatively bare in terms of defensive backs with anything more than special teams play on their resume.
With two rookies among those five featured defensive backs, Head Coach Bill Belichick felt comfortable re-stocking that cupboard with experienced veterans like Otis Smith, Jeff Burris and Terrell Buckley while also drafting a pair of young safeties in Guss Scott and Dexter Reid and cornerback Christian Morton to infuse more youth while creating intense competition for training camp.
Consider that only Law missed a game last year among those five defenders and he only missed one despite an ankle injury that may have sidelined most players. Law recognized his need to be on the field and played well through the pain. But in Super Bowl XXXVIII when Wilson and Harrison left with injuries, the back of the secondary was susceptible with rookie free agent Shawn Mayer and special teamer Chris Akins filling in during crunch time.
Facing another season without secondary depth, Belichick added experience and youth to help both the short term and the future.
"Whenever you get a chance to get experience and get some good football players that are out there, that's what you try to take advantage of and I think that's what he's done," Harrison said in reference to the additions. "You can never have too much experience, especially with the combination of youth we have. We got Otis back, Jeff Burris and Terrell Buckley – they have been very good football players for a long time. If they can come out here and compete and show these young guys what to do, it will help us out tremendously."
While Wilson, Samuel, Reid, Scott and perhaps Morton may offer a glimpse of the future, the graybeards not only offer valuable experience and leadership, but playmaking ability. Consider that the six older veterans average 32.5 years old and 10.7 years of experience, but have combined for 175 interceptions led by Buckley's 47 and Law's 35.
Buckley was a guy Belichick didn't anticipate bringing back to Foxborough. "I'm glad we got him," he said. "I didn't think he would get him when free agency started and you looked at the list and who you intended to target. He's got speed, quickness and good cover skills and he's already showing those on the field."
Buckley, who lives in Law's Florida neighborhood and shares his agent, came back for the chance to win again and likes the mix of players at the position.
"All of us make plays, play hard, are team players and I think we like winning," he said. "Sometimes [you just like] being around guys that you win with and go to battle with and feel comfortable with. I thought this would be a great opportunity. I talked to Ty about how much fun we had playing together, mixing it up, playing different roles and in different situations that, as a player, you don't get a lot of opportunity to do, and that excited me about the opportunity here as well."
Smith and Burris provide the added luxury of having experience at both safety and corner, which is something Belichick liked about Wilson last year because of the flexibility it gave him to match up with receivers in certain situations or formations.
"Those guys have started a lot of games in the league and have a lot of experience," Belichick said. "We'll let the competition play out in training camp where it's more of a competitive situation."
"I think the young guys came in and did a wonderful job doing everything the coaches asked them to do last year," Harrison stressed. "That's why you have good veteran leadership around to help those young guys catch on to what's going on. Any time you can add quality depth and veteran leadership you want that. We had that opportunity."
It will make for an interesting summer. Belichick has kept as many as 10 defensive backs in the past and could again assuming many of them contribute on special teams. The six thirtysomethings along with Wilson, Samuel and the two rookie safeties make 10. But that excludes special teams ace Je'Rod Cherry, who would seemingly have an inside track to retaining his roster spot, and five-year veteran safety Jason Perry, Scott Farley, returnee Shawn Mayer and rookies Morton and Randall Gay, a speedy LSU product who could surprise.
It's possible, of course, that one of the three veteran newcomers gets left off the roster in favor of Cherry while the group of young players tries to impress as projected long shots heading into camp. It's only then that the secondary will sort itself out. But look for at least one of those players left on the outside as possibilities to join an expanded eight-man practice squad when it forms.