With Samuel Holding Out, Pats Will Mix and Match To Get By
By Rich "Mell-o" Lyons
"What we have here is a failure to communicate." ~"Cool Hand Luke"
The Pats have been in well-publicized negotiations with disgruntled cornerback Asante Samuel, and so far, very little progress has been made. With Samuel threatening to skip mini-camp, and sit out the first ten games of the season, the Pats suddenly have a monstrous hole in their secondary, and if there is any weakness on this team, it has to be in the defensive backfield. So what are the Pats going to do in order to keep their title hopes alive?
Ellis Hobbs seems to have the inside track to the #1 corner spot coming into the season. Hobbs will be entering his third season, and since being drafted in the third round of the '05 Draft, Hobbs has shown that he has the ability to play very well when playing in pass defenses, and has also been able to be a reliable cover man when matched up one-on-one with outside receivers. However, it will be a tall task to cover the #1 receivers the Pats will be playing, particularly in their own division, with Lee Evans, Laveranues Coles, and Chris Chambers all being exceptional wide-outs and Pro Bowl candidates each year. Hobbs is also fairly undersized for his position, measuring in at 5'9, 190 pounds, so will trading bumps with a receiver like Chambers faze him? What is known is the fact that Hobbs has been trusted on in the past, and for the most part, he has been able to hold his own.
All along, the Patriots' brass has felt that Samuel is somewhat a "product of the system," and that paying him Nate Clements or Champ Bailey money simply would be too much a player to man a position that could be filled by someone else, again, because their system is so good that the Pats can put anyone in that opening and will be able to not only survive, but prosper. However, think back to the receiver position last year, and the personnel that were plugged in to replace the voids left by Deion Branch and David Givens. Although their plan worked out for the most part, in big games, it ended up being the difference between a win and a loss, especially true in the AFC Championship Game. Over the off-season, the Pats spent a ton of money to correct their receiver problem, but it seemed like the reinforcements came too late, and the damage was already done. So with all that being said, how can it be assumed that this won't happen again this year at the corner position? Sure, Samuel could very well be a "product," but even if he is, he has played so outstanding in the Pats' defensive scheme that he has almost become an irreplaceable commodity. So although the Pats are unwilling to pay Samuel's asking price (reportedly in the $10 million a year range), the cost that they may be taking on by letting him walk could grow exponentially by the week. So, that's just something to keep in mind when looking at Hobbs, or whoever else could be replacing Samuel as their best shut-down corner.
In one of the more unheralded moves of this off-season for any team in the league, the Pats were able to go out and sign Tory James, who is two years removed from his Pro Bowl appearance with Cincinnati. Although the team claims that this was purely to add depth to the team, clearly there was a big gap between Samuel and the Patriots in terms of the contract talks, so the James move feels like a bit of an "insurance policy" to an outsider. In any event, what James brings to the table is someone who will, at the very least, compete for the opening that will likely be left by Samuel. James has recorded at least four interceptions in six straight seasons while playing for Oakland and the Bengals. In 2004, his Pro Bowl season, James had the best year of his career, recording 56 tackles and eight interceptions. When you consider that James will be entering his eleventh season in the league, there will probably be some concerns that James may not have the kind of pace needed to stay with the burners of the AFC East. However, throughout the Pats' opening mini-camp, James has shown encouraging signs. Still, it's something to think about, and it will be interesting to see if James can adjust.
Competing with James to line up opposite Hobbs will be Chad Scott and Randall Gay. Scott is the more experienced of the two, and like James, will be entering his eleventh season. Scott, unlike Hobbs, has the prototypical size of a shut-down corner, coming in at 6'1, 205 pounds. Scott ideally would be used in the slot to cover bigger receivers going over the middle, but because of the lack of corner depth, Scott could be used on the outside. Gay is entering his fourth season, but in his last two, he has played just eight games combined, being put on injured reserve twice for various leg injuries. He seems to be playing with a chip on his shoulder, as he was quoted as saying "I can say this, I'm the most anxious person for training camp. I'm about the only one here that's ready for it to come." Even though the depth is short, it's likely Gay will only be used in nickel and dime passing formations in order to slowly get him back to "game speed."
When talking about the safeties, the biggest question has to be the health of Rodney Harrison, who is coming off of a horrific leg injury that he suffered in the regular season finale against Tennessee, was unable to play in any of the three postseason games, and whose initial diagnosis had him missing a portion of the 2007 season. However, Harrison made a faster recovery than what was expected, and showed up to mini-camp close to full-strength. Clearly, this is a completely different defense without Harrison in the lineup, and although the Pats made it to the AFC Championship game, Peyton Manning and the Colts' passing offense carved up the Pats' secondary, particularly in the second half en route to their dramatic comeback victory. Harrison's presence over the middle brings an intimidation factor that few defenders on New England, let alone the entire league, can bring to the table.
The other possible safety lining up with Harrison could be Eugene Wilson. Wilson, who is coming off a season where he missed the final ten games of the regular season and the playoffs with a hamstring injury, has been able to make a sizable impact in his first three full seasons, recording four interceptions in both '03 and '04 when Wilson was used at both safety and corner. Because of his versatility, there stands a chance that, if needed, he could be moved over to the cornerback position, making him an invaluable commodity given the current state of the backfield. While at Illinois, Wilson, who was used primarily at Illinois as a corner, still needs to grow into lining up on the outside in the NFL. Wilson is another guy who will need to be nurtured back into actual "game speed" slowly, and whether that means lining up at safety, or being used primarily in multiple corner sets remains to be seen.
While Rodney's health is still somewhat in question, and Eugene is still trying to get up to speed, the Pats were able to go out and get the talented Brandon Meriweather in the first round of the '07 Draft. Sure, the former Miami Hurricane standout comes to the Patriots with a troubled past of off-the-field incidents, but what is not in question is his ability to produce on the football field. When mini-camp opened however, Meriweather was not present, and reports indicated that he is suffering from a minor hamstring injury. Judging from the past, the extent of the injury may never be known, as the Pats are excellent at keeping their injury report under tight wraps until the season rolls around. If he comes into the season at full strength, and is able to show the kind of play-making ability that made him the 24th overall selection this year, then there stands a chance that he could possibly replace Wilson as the starting free safety, or, if Harrison is unable to go, it will be a sure thing that Meriweather would be lining up in the strong safety position opposite Wilson for their opening game against the Jets.
With a lot of question marks entering the season, there is something that cannot be disputed. Having Asante Samuel on the field makes this unit, and the defense on a whole, better. However, the Pats are not going to break from their notion that the idea of giving Samuel a long-term deal, for the kind of money given to an elite corner, is going to put the total compensation of the contract at a much higher level than they are willing to go. It seems as though there is no resolution to this story in sight, and as long as Samuel and the Pats continue to remain true to their beliefs, then expect some of the names mentioned above to be called on to make a large contribution to the Pats' run at a fourth title in seven years.
Rich Lyons is a Boston fan and recent USC Gamecock graduate. You can read more of Rich's material on Sports Central or on his personal sports blog "Mell-o's Thoughts." Rich can also be reached through his MySpace page.