A lot of words came to mind upon mention of the name James Sanders. The New England Patriots safety has been called a "role player," "veteran leader" and many other things to describe his sound but not elite level of play.
Even though an injury had sidelined him for much of camp, "roster bubble" was not one of the phrases used to describe Sanders. Many thought that his redeeming qualities of high football intelligence and experience in the system would earn him a roster spot, and with good reason. In his book, Take Your Eye Off The Ball, Pat Kirwan talks about the high value Bill Belichick places on football intelligence.
"[Belichick] knows as well as anyone that ideas alone don't equal victories. It's not what Bill or any other coach knows—it's what the players know. That is why Belichick places such a high priority on finding players who are smart enough to execute the scheme he's running."
Of course, that quote was in reference to Belichick's mentality in evaluating talent for the draft, but certainly should also be applied to building a roster.
Depth was already a concern back there, and to see the Patriots release one of their most steady presences in the back end of the secondary is a bit unsettling, especially when you consider who's left on the roster.
Belichick seemed a little unsettled by it, too, though attributed it to just another hard decision on the path to the final 53.
"James has been a really good guy to have on this team, a hard-working kid. He developed form the time he came through to us as a draft choice out of Fresno. He was a solid team player for us. It's just part of the moves. We needed to release some people and he was a tough one."
In the end, Sanders' salary was almost certainly one of the factors in the move. At $2.8 million, Sanders carries a high price tag for a player who may be only third or fourth on the depth chart.
Kirwan also highlights the methodology and logic behind the Patriots' roster moves, which sometimes bamboozle some, but are never without a great deal of meticulous thought.
"Bill Belichick is the best there is at making hard decisions. The Patriots simply don't allow themselves to get emotionally attached to players. They make business decisions and let guys go if they think they won't be worthy of their next contract.
Do they sometimes give up too early on a player? Sure. Ty Law was let go after 10 years in New England; five years later, he was still in the league. But the Pats knew the next deal he would sign would be too much for them to commit to an aging player, so they said goo-bye to a productive and popular member of their franchise."
Replace the "next contract" with "current contract" and "aging player" with "the third-best safety on the team" and that sounds about right. The next quote is where Kirwan sheds some light on the Patriots' current problem at safety:
"To be able to make those tough calls and succeed, a team has to consistently excel with its draft picks," says Kirwan.
One look at the depth at safety—Sergio Brown, James Ihedigbo, Josh Barrett and Ross Ventrone—reveals a lack of depth that may have been avoided with solid drafting at safety.
Sanders' cap number may have been high, but his experience was incredibly valuable to the safety position. Sanders has been a consistent contributor for the secondary, even in a rotational role. He has played in 80 games with 50 starts over his six-year career, and has logged 301 tackles and eight interceptions in that time.
The four safeties listed above have a total of 68 games and three starts. That's total, meaning that Sanders had almost as many starts as these safeties have played games total.
What's more, as Mike Reiss pointed out after both games against Tampa Bay and Saturday night against Detroit, the Patriots have spent much of the preseason searching for the right combination at safety. That's not exactly a glowing vote of confidence for the guys at the top of the depth chart, either.
The question remains: Where do the Patriots go from here? One has to wonder how the Patriots feel about their safeties headed into the regular season. In that respect, there could be an acquisition on the way.
The Patriots already added Ihedigbo just a few weeks ago, and weren't shy about bringing in several safeties for workouts and physicals, namely Darren Sharper, Renaldo Hill and Dashon Goldson. Although Goldson has already signed, Sharper and Hill remain available.
The battle at safety, and any remaining acquisitions, will certainly be under a microscope after the shocking release of Sanders.