The Secondary: Who will step up?

New England's first mandatory full-squad activities for 2007 passed during the first week of June as veteran mini-camp converged on Gillette Stadium. Not surprisingly one player notably absent from the three-days of practice action was franchise cornerback Asante Samuel.

Yet to sign his $7.79 million franchise tender and unhappy with the status of nearly non-existent negotiations on a long-term contract in New England, Samuel made it known on the eve of the camp that he would not attend and at this point is prepared and willing to sit out the first 10 weeks of the regular season.

Not only did Samuel leave a hole in the secondary during mini-camp practice, it's a hole that could remain for the foreseeable future. Candidates to fill that hole began making their respective cases in minicamp. That list includes versatile returning veteran Chad Scott, 12th-year veteran free agent addition Tory James, oft-injured fourth-year player Randall Gay and possibly even free safeties Eugene Wilson or rookie first-round pick Brandon Meriweather.

All but Meriweather were in action at minicamp, but it was the returning veteran Scott who took the bulk of the reps opposite Ellis Hobbs and alongside safeties Wilson and Rodney Harrison. The 32-year-old Scott actually started nine games in New England last season filling in for both Samuel and Hobbs and has started 97 of 108 games played over the course of his 10-year NFL career. It's not surprising, then, that regardless of Samuel's status Scott's always taken a starter's approach to his work.

"I am just here to just go out there and play," said Scott, whose resume includes 21 career picks. "I view myself as a starter. I'm happy with any opportunity I get."

Like Scott, the newcomer James also has plenty of starting experience. In his 11 previous seasons in Denver, Oakland and Cincinnati the 2004 Pro Bowler started 86 of 158 games played, including every game over the last four seasons with the Bengals. The 33-year-old ranks fourth among active players with 39 career interceptions, including at least four picks in each of the last six seasons.

Similar to what Scott expressed, James knows he has no real say in the decision of who might fill-in for Samuel in an extended absence. To steal a phrase Belichick has used often over the years -- coaches coach and players play.

"I don't have anything to do with that," James said of the open spot left with Samuel's AWOL status. "All I have to do is come in here and pick up the defense as fast as I can and work hard and just try to get out on the field and help the team win. That's all I can think about at this point. I just want to be the best player I can be. Work as hard as I can and not leave anything out there. I just want to help this team get to where we want to be. That's my expectation -- just be the best player I can be."

Wilson would appear to be the longest shot to fill the potential open slot at corner. While he was drafted as a corner, he's played virtually his entire career at safety save for some practice action and sub package work. He's suffered a number of leg injuries in his time in New England, including a hamstring issue last fall that landed him on injured reserve on Dec. 4 and limited him to just four games played for the season.

Similarly, Gay has battled his share of injuries in his three seasons in New England. After serving as a surprise contributor and injury fill-in as a rookie free agent in 2004, he's played in just eight games over the last two seasons. The Patriots gave him a $1.3 million restricted free agent tender this spring, perhaps an indication of the team's desire to retain his services as any other team looking to sign Gay would have had to surrender a second-round pick as compensation. Gay once seemed to have a promising future in New England after starting nine of 15 games played in 2004, and all three postseason games on the way to a Super Bowl ring, but much like his career at Louisiana State, injuries have hindered his development.

Whether it's Scott, James, Wilson, Gay, another player or even Hobbs' development into more of a No. 1 type corner in Samuel's absence, don't expect the remaining members of the New England secondary to sit around and feel sorry for themselves. With or without the guy who tied for the NFL lead in interceptions a year ago, life will go on in the Patriots defensive backfield.

"All of us go out there ready to step it up," Hobbs said. "We don't look at it as lets jump on one guys' shoulders, especially in the back end in the secondary where you are always out there by yourself anyway. You always have to feel like you're the guy to make that play. I think that with everybody having that mentality that's how we do make plays as a team."

If the team does have to play regular season games without Samuel, do the players feel that would leave a hole in the secondary?

"No. We just regroup and keep going," Hobbs responded quickly. "We've already regrouped. It's the same way with any of us. If one's missing...it's just like if Asante is hurt. We still have to go out there and play.

"That's what we do here for the Patriots, we're going to go out there and put the best 11 out there. God didn't break the mold since Zant isn't here. That's no disrespect to him at all. He understands what I mean by that. But we can't worry about those things because Asante is not here right now. We have to continue to play and continue to develop as a team because the season will move on without him."

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