When Troy Brown lined up at cornerback at an early training camp practice,
it was dismissed as Bill Belichick just finding a player with ball skills for
a Hail Mary situation or perhaps trying to hassle his 12-year veteran for some
unknown reason. Surely he couldn't have been serious.
But Brown has worked as a slot corner in the nickel several times since and even took a few reps there with the first defense in the preseason opener against Philly. That work came in addition to his normal load as a receiver and the team's primary punt returner. He finished with two solid tackles on the defensive side while returning two punts for 5 yards including a muff that he recovered. Ironically, the only place he didn't register on the stat sheet was where he makes his living - at receiver.
It's highly unlikely, of course, that Brown will be a regular part of the defense
during the season, but Belichick is clearly trying to give him some defensive
work to give the team more game day roster flexibility and perhaps to see if
he might be able to keep a sixth wideout on the 53-man roster and one less defensive
Secondary depth was a problem last year, but that deficiency didn't surface
until late in Super Bowl XXXVIII when safeties Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson
went down with injuries. They were replaced by Chris Akins and undrafted free
agent Shawn Mayer, who struggled late in that game against the Panthers.
Belichick, ever the stickler for preparation, wants to make sure he has additional flexibility if an emergency arises, and believes training camp is the time to test the water.
"We are just trying to create depth for our team," Belichick said. "You get into a situation where you run short on people during the regular season and it's good if you have depth. It's a little late to wait until the 10th week and say, 'Oh geez, we have a couple corners hurt, who are we going to move over?' It's easier to build it now. We have four experienced corners and some other guys that don't have a lot of experience. So maybe Troy fits in there and maybe he doesn't."
Belichick better hope Brown is never pressed into such action. With Terrell Buckley and Asante Samuel behind Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, the Patriots have a solid group of corners, but it thins out after that. And even if rookie corners like Randall Gay and Christian Morton don't make the club the likely emergency scenario would include sliding safety Eugene Wilson back to his normal cornerback spot with rookie Guss Scott filling in at safety.
That makes one wonder why Brown, who has done what's been asked of him for
11 years, would be asked to play corner even if his work involves only some
zone coverage. It doesn't make a ton of sense except that it could allow Belichick
some flexibility when picking the final roster that makes the final 53-man team
stronger and the game day 45 as well.
"He plays in the slot (on offense)," Belichick explained. "He has a lot of skills that make him a good slot receiver. A number of those skills are the same ones a defensive player needs to be able to cover those guys that play at the position. So I think that his skill set is a fit for that spot. He needs some experience but he's working on it. I think he is having a little fun with it so maybe it help us down the road."
Brown isn't the only one playing both ways this summer. Others like Dan Klecko and Mike Vrabel have done it before, although it's doubtful Vrabel will take may snaps at tight end this season. Brown is a defensive newbie, but it would be just like Belichick to stick him out there during the regular season only to watch his veteran wideout make a big, game-changing defensive play. That's the kind of roll Belichick's been on since 2001.