Secondary Plan: New Cast of Characters Try to Replace Samuel, Hobbs
Bill Belichick has developed a reputation for knowing when player's careers are over. If their career is not over and they still leave, he can find a more suitable replacement. Export Lawyer Milloy, import Rodney Harrison. So long Willie McGinest, hello Tully Banta-Cain. Banta-Cain wants to leave, how about Junior Seau, Adalius Thomas, or Jerod Mayo.
When he's made mistakes he's fixed them. Look no further than 2007. Bill thought he could replace Deion Branch and David Givens with Reche Caldwell and Doug Gabriel. It imploded in the AFC Championship game against the Colts when Caldwell dropped two passes that would have been touchdowns.
But one area player he hasn't been able to replace, at least through one year, has been Asante Samuel. This year Belichick tries to ignite the same turnaround in the secondary, especially at cornerback.
Last season was the first time since 2005 the Pats allowed at least 20 points per game. New England only came up with 14 interceptions, none of which were taken to the house, which was the expertise of the departed Samuel.
Belichick decided to clean house and trade away the other anchor of his secondary, Ellis Hobbs, who was trying to replace Samuel.
Hobbs and Samuel, now Eagles, were stalwarts for the Pats, anchoring the secondary during New England's 18-1 season. Samuel started 44 of his last 46 games in New England and Hobbs started 41 games the last three years. While teamed together, the two terrorized quarterbacks to a tone of 19 interceptions and 60 pass deflections.
Without Samuel though, Hobbs was not nearly as affective. He was beat numerous times during the season, failing to adequately replace Samuel. It could be one of the reasons the Patriots shipped him to Philadelphia for two fifth round picks.
The Patriots used the picks to move up in the forth round and select offensive lineman Richard Ohrnberger out of Penn St. For Hobbs, the season resembled more how he ended Super Bowl XLII, when he was burned by Plaxico Burress, than how he started the game with a interception of Eli Manning.
The new plan in the post Asante Samuel days includes seven players that are young, old, experienced and inexperienced names. The returners—Jonathan Wilhite, Terrence Wheatley, and Mike Richardson—have played a combined 32 games in the NFL.
The newcomers are a mix. Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden have combined to put on four different uniforms and have taken the field 232 times. The problem is Springs has played in two playoff games, losing both, and Bodden has never played in a postseason game.
The Patriots hope Wilhite can continue to dip into the potential he showed at the end of last season. After recording one or less tackles in 10 of the first 12 games, the corner out of Auburn closed out the final four games with 12 tackles, two pass deflections and an interception.
Terrence Wheatley and Mike Richardon join Wilhite as the only corners returning to the Patriots. Together they combined to play a full 16 game campaign. So maybe the Patriots have two corners returning.
The problem is the full season played by Richardson/Wheatley wasn't a good one. The two combined for 19 tackles and two pass deflections. Every other category kept by stat trackers was filled by a dash or a zero.
Wheatley played in six of the Patriots first eight games before suffering a season ending wrist injury in his first career start against Indianapolis in week nine. As for Richardson, he played in 10 games after missing all of the 2007 season with a hand injury.
This inexperience adds pressure to Bodden and Springs. It shouldn't be an issue for either defensive back as long as they both play likes its 2007.
Bodden comes over from Detroit, but the Pats need him to return to his form he showed in Cleveland under former New England defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. In 2007, Bodden led the Browns with 76 tackles, six interceptions and three fumble recoveries.
Last year for the winless Lions, whose defense ranked worst in the NFL in points allowed and total yards, Bodden finished with one interception and 12 pass deflections, the worst of his career since 2004, when he only played eight games.
Springs might be the bigger name but had a similar off year. The 34 year old tallied 36 tackles in nine games for Washington, the lowest output since 2001 when he recorded 20 in eight games.
But in 2007 Springs played all 16 games and was a force on the field for the Redskins. He made 57 solo tackles, the most for him since 2000 and finished the season with 62 total tackles. He also nabbed four picks, forced a fumble and finished with 14 pass deflections, the third highest of his career.
As for the rookies, they carry the biggest question marks (ask Wilhiteand Wheatley). Butler was slated to go in the first round, but the Patriots snagged him in the middle of the second. The former UConn Husky, who will wear No. 27, formally of Ellis Hobbs, picked off 10 passes while at Storrs, Conn., returning two for touchdowns.
He has great hands too. He returned punts and played a little wide receiver for the Huskies. Jamar Love, the other rookie corner, was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Pats. As an Arkansas Razorback, Love didn't record an interception but broke up 15 passes, eight of which came last year.
In a year that would be called anything but a transitional phase for the Patriots, the secondary raises a lot of question marks. Can the entire unit stay healthy? Will Springs play likes it's 2006 or 2007? Ditto for Bodden.
How will the rookies transition to the NFL? And that doesn't even include the biggest question in the secondary, its leader. Is Rodney Harrison coming back?
He's not a corner, but Harrison's absence last year severely hurt the entire unit. Right now it seems like they will be without him again as all signs point to retirement. For a team that's goal is Super Bowl or bust nearly every season, there might be rough seas during the season for a cornerback unit.
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