It has been an evident trait of Patriots teams over the last decade. Players who can be utilized in different roles find their way onto the football field.
In the Belichick era, countless Pats have played multiple positions.
Linebacker Mike Vrabel would occasionally line up as a tight end in goal line sets, racking up 10 touchdown receptions over his 14-year NFL career. Defensive tackle Dan Klecko set up at fullback in short yardage, and so has nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Wide receiver Troy Brown logged time at cornerback when the secondary was riddled with injuries. Defensive backs Artrell Hawkins and Eugene Wilson both switched from cornerback to free safety to help the team in times of need. Even linebacker Don Davis slid into the free safety spot during the 2004 campaign.
The trend continued in 2011—wide receivers Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater competed at corner and safety, respectively.
In a sense, altering positions is part of the Patriot way.
Now the burning question is—aside from defensive end/outside linebacker hybrids—who could change positions for New England in 2012?
Edelman celebrating a Vince Wilfork interception in 2011.
Pats wideout and return man Julian Edelman is a jack of all trades. He's the type of football player who can be plugged in almost anywhere.
"Julian is not afraid to get up there and mix it up and be physical with guys," former Patriot Troy Brown told the New York Post days before Super Bowl XLVI. “He’s just one of those guys that you watch play and say, 'He's just a football player.'"
Prior to the 2011 season, the last time the former Kent State QB played cornerback was his freshman year of high school. Yet, Edelman looked the part when he first lined up at slot corner on Nov. 13 against the New York Jets—a game in which he injured Jets running back Ladainian Tomlinson.
Is No. 11 a receiver, or is he a defensive back? Well, he's both. Edelman has caught 48 passes during his three NFL seasons, and he's also made 19 tackles.
In 2012, he might find himself covering receivers once again if the secondary battles injuries.
Slater bringing down Broncos running back Willis McGahee
Matthew Slater has caught one pass for 46 yards in his four NFL seasons. That said, he's the team's top contributor on special teams where he earned the nod as a 2011 Pro Bowl special teamer.
But Slater has also seen time elsewhere: safety.
According to Rotoworld.com, the ex-UCLA Bruin started against the Indianapolis Colts on Dec. 4 and played 70 out of 73 snaps. During that Patriots victory, he made seven tackles while also forcing a fumble. At seasons end, the multifaceted Slater had started a total of three games at safety.
"My career has been about [taking] whatever anyone asks of me and then going out there to do it at the best of my ability," Slater told the Boston Herald in December. "Playing hard and fast and doing whatever it takes to help this team have success.”
Currently, Slater may not be needed to fill the void at safety with Patrick Chung, Steve Gregory, Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett, practice squadder Malcolm Williams, as well as rookies Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner filling the depth chart. However, his growing experience at the position makes him an additional option.
Is he a true safety? Probably not, but Matt Slater is capable of making his impact felt wherever he lines up. He's ready to attack the ball carrier and he's has made 58 combined tackles in his professional career.
Fells has played at tight end and fullback.
Fells is an H-back type of player who's made 88 catches for 1,001 yards and eight scores since entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2006. He provides New England with depth as the third tight end behind Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but he also has spent time at fullback.
Last year, the Patriots didn't have a fullback until the signing of Lousaka Polite in late December, which suggests the coaching staff is confident in their backup tight ends' ability to block as a lead back.
The 90-man roster must be cut to 53 in September. If Belichick and Co. are comfortable with Fells as a two-position player, then he could make fullbacks Spencer Larsen, Tony Fiammetta and Eric Kettani free agents.
Chances are, one of the fullbacks will make the team. Nonetheless, Fells' role gives the Patriots some food for thought.
Larsen can play on both sides of the ball.
In 2008, during his rookie season, Larsen started at fullback and linebacker, while also appearing on special teams.
"It was a fun time in my career; we got into some injury trouble at linebacker, I'd been playing fullback for a few weeks and we ran into some injury problems and I needed to play linebacker that day against Atlanta," Larsen said to Shalise Manza Young of the Boston Globe.
Former Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels is back in New England as the offensive coordinator. As a result, the Patriots may find multiple ways to use Larsen in the future. Despite the logjam at linebacker, Larsen throws another piece into the puzzle.
Larsen has been all over the field during his NFL career. He's caught 14 passes, rushed the ball 17 times and made 38 tackles.
The Patriots will find some way to use Larsen, but the 28-year-old is listed as a fullback on the team's website.
Dan Connolly can play both guard and center
Dan Connolly has proven his worth since being signed to the Patriots' practice squad in 2007. He's played center, guard and even returned a kick 71 yards—an NFL record for offensive linemen.
When longtime Patriots center Dan Koppen broke his ankle in week 1 of the 2011 season, Connolly was there to fill the void, starting 11 games.
However, both Koppen and Connolly re-signed with the team this offseason; therefore, it's uncertain who will be the starter, but the Boston Globe has expressed that the No. 1 spot is Connolly's to lose.
"Koppen has returned for a 10th season with the Patriots, but this one is different from many of the rest because there’s no guarantee that he’ll be the team’s Week 1 starter," said Jeff Howe. "That job might belong to Dan Connolly if he’s not pressed into action at left or right guard."
The 29-year-old Connolly is on New England's depth chart as both a center and right guard. The Southeast Missouri State alum has certainly excelled when on the field, regardless of where he's playing.
The moral of the story is: Dan Connolly is a true offensive lineman.
Gallery's usefulness will help him find a niche in Foxboro.
Gallery was the Oakland Raiders' No. 2 overall draft selection in 2004, and played for the Seattle Seahawks in 2011. Having started 103 of 104 games during his career, the 31-year-old may be pushed into an important role with New England.
"With Matt Light retiring, Logan Mankins recovering from ACL surgery, and Brian Waters absent from last Thursday’s OTA, it would seem that there are openings on the line to be claimed with a strong offseason," said Field Yates of ESPN Boston. "Gallery, who has excelled more as a guard then tackle, could be a prime candidate to slide into one of the potentially available starting roles."
After all that has transpired with New England's offensive line, Robert Gallery will be ready to play multiple positions in 2012.
Hightower can play any linebacker spot.
The Patriots found an NFL-ready prospect in Alabama's Dont'a Hightower. As one of New England's first-round picks in the 2012 draft, Hightower possesses a great football IQ and can play more than just inside linebacker.
For the Crimson Tide, the defensive signal-caller and captain set up mainly as an inside linebacker. Yet, the Patriots already have two promising players at that position: Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes.
The 6'4", 260-pound linebacker will most likely make his mark elsewhere in New England's front seven.
“I’m versatile and I can play all different kinds of positions,” Hightower said. “It’s more or less about the scheme and the philosophy. It gets a lot more technical about what position it is. I’m going to get to the ball, and I’m going to make plays on the ball, regardless of whether it’s a 4-3 or a 3-4.”
The Patriots defensive scheme bounced between a 4-3 and a 3-4 sub package in 2011, so Hightower will fit in somewhere, perhaps at outside linebacker with Rob Ninkovich.
Ultimately, there's no harm done by a little competition.
"It really doesn’t hurt me at all," Ninkovich said after a recent Patriots OTA practice. "I’ve been through a lot in my NFL career, so it really doesn’t affect me as far as guys coming in."
McCourty has played at safety for the Pats
Devin McCourty has been a topic of discussion for football analysts. Is he better off sticking with cornerback or moving to safety?
The Patriots' 2010 first-round draft choice picked off seven passes as a rookie on his way to the Pro Bowl, but the Rutgers' star took a step back in 2011, struggling in coverage and nursing a shoulder injury.
In his second NFL season, McCourty occasionally filled in at free safety—a position he would welcome.
“I try to study and know as much as I can, so if Coach decides I play corner or safety, I’m going to make sure I’m ready to play either/or,” McCourty told Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com this May. “Like Coach said, ‘we don’t have a game tomorrow’ so no decisions need to be made now. We’ll see how it goes.”
WEEI's Chrisopher Price recently spoke with McCourty and learned of his outlook on a potential role change.
“I think the biggest thing here for every player is that the more you do, it gives you more value and gives you a different perspective on the game,” McCourty said on playing corner and safety in 2011. “Just being able to look at the field from a different view, a different angle. Just being able to see things differently."
The Patriots might need his services at corner, alongside a youthful group which includes Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling, Sterling Moore and rookie Alfonzo Dennard. Yet McCourty's willingness to try a different position will leave coach Belichick with an ultimatum.
Malcolm Williams has made the switch to safety
Former TCU Horned Frog Malcolm Williams was a Patriots seventh-round pick in the 2011 draft. During his first NFL season, the cornerback fluctuated between the practice squad and active roster, playing in two regular season games and all three playoff games.
Cracking the squad as a special teams player seems to be Williams' best bet, but maybe a switch to safety will give him a greater opportunity.
Mike Reiss reports that the Patriots have given Williams a look at safety.
"I'm looking forward to that chance," Williams said in an article on the Athens (Texas) Daily Review website.
Williams' transition to safety is in full swing, and he's listed as a strong safety on New England's depth chart.
Moore's game-saving strip on Lee Evans made him a hero.
Sterling Moore was signed as a street free agent to the Patriots' practice squad last October and the rest is history.
Moore played in six regular season games at safety for New England in 2011, making seven tackles, two interceptions and a touchdown. In the AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens, he ripped a pivotal touchdown catch out of Lee Evans' hands—encrusting himself as a folk hero.
Moore has played both safety and cornerback for the Patriots, but it is unknown which position best serves the team. He's listed as a cornerback on New England's website.
Positions and jersey numbers—many questions must be answered when it comes to Sterling Moore.