One of the more underrated positional battles that will continue to take shape in training camp is the fight for the nickel back spot. Often referred to as the "star" position on the Patriots defense, which of the team's defensive backs winds up working in the slot could be of vital importance if the unit is to improve significantly on last year's dismal performance on third downs.
Bill Belichick has no shortage of candidates and it will be interesting to see how the competition unfolds in the coming days as a full complement of choices becomes available.
The starters project to be easy – All-Pro rookie sensation Devin McCourty will land on the left side while veteran Leigh Bodden, who is returning after missing 2010 with a torn rotator cuff, is back on the right side. From there, things could get tricky.
Kyle Arrington, who started 14 games at right corner a year ago, had to wait until the start of the new league year before he could begin practicing. Darius Butler, who started the first two games before Arrington replaced him in the second half of the Week 2 loss at the Jets, was active early on before missing Wednesday night's practice inside Gillette Stadium. Veteran Jonathan Wilhite, who has seen the bulk of his action in the slot during his previous three seasons, also is getting reps. And rookie Ras-I Dowling, a second-round pick out of Virginia, was thrust into the mix late after signing earlier in the week before missing in stadium practice as well.
That doesn't even bring the deep safety crop into the equation. Patrick Chung spent much of last season working in the slot in nickel situations, and veteran James Sanders also is a common fixture in subpackages. Brandon McGowan, who missed last season with a torn pectoral muscle, re-signed as a free agent but also had to wait for the start of the new league year before taking the field. In 2009 he had some success marking tight ends and could be part of the solution once again.
Butler and Bodden saw rotational reps in the slot on Monday with the former opening up on the outside while Bodden worked the slot. On the next set of reps, the pair switched. Although it would appear the two positions present unique challenges, both downplayed the differences.
"I've been playing inside and outside since college. There's no preference for me," Butler said following Tuesday's workout. "Wherever coach puts me I'm going to try my best to do a great job there. There are different dimensions on the field. Outside, whether it's left or right, you always have the sideline out there. In the slot there's a lot more field. It's just working in different space. But it's pretty much the same thing. You're still covering a guy."
"Physically it's not a challenge," added Bodden. "It's just another cornerback position. It's just on the inside. I'm going wherever they want me to go, learning the position and playing it to the best of my ability and as hard as I can."
It will be interesting to see if Belichick chooses to move Bodden around much. In 2009 he turned in a solid season, tying for the team lead with five interceptions. But his work was done exclusively on the outside, even during training camp. In fact, during his previous stops in Cleveland (2003-07) and Detroit (2008) he barely ventured away from the sidelines.
"In Cleveland I played the inside one year but in 2009 here I didn't," Bodden admitted. "It's a new year and if the coaches put me out there I have to do what they want me to do and play. Like I said, play the position to the best of my ability.
"I have to guard a man so I have to do that as well as I can. If I'm in zone I have to play zone to the best of my ability. It changes my responsibilities but ultimately it's pretty much the same thing."
Interestingly, the guy with the most experience playing the slot – Wilhite -- has seen the least amount of time there thus far. Perhaps that's by design as Belichick obviously knows how what to expect from the 2008 fourth-round pick in that department. Obviously the coach needs to see as much of Butler, Bodden and perhaps Dowling working on the inside as possible to make a final determination.
Still, when Wilhite has been on the field he hasn't looked great. He could be in a roster battle with Butler, a fact that may be most evident by his presence at the end of Wednesday's practice when took reps in the opportunity portion of the workout rather than doing conditioning with more established veterans.
However the final pieces come together, McCourty loves the mix of youth and experience currently on the roster.
"It's pretty good right now. We have some veterans with James back there, McGowan coming back and getting Leigh back," McCourty said. "Guys with a bunch of experience and then you have some young guys trying to learn. So, you put that together and right now we're trying to get a vibe for each other and working hard each day."