By: Bob George/
April 14, 2006

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Next in a series of positional analysis for the 2005 New England Patriots. Today: secondary.

It could very well have been the worst Patriot injury of the Bill Belichick Era.

Week 3 at Pittsburgh. Cedrick Wilson runs a crossing pattern. Rodney Harrison moves laterally to defend a ball carrier. Wilson and Harrison meet. Harrison's upper body goes back right, his knee stays put. All tendons around the knee are torn. Out for the season, and perhaps for his career.

The career may not be over, but last season certainly was. Harrison is still in rehab, and reports are that he may also have to miss all of 2006. Harrison is coming along nicely, but it still takes a long time to recover from what kind of an injury he sustained. Harrison, who turns 34 in December, is a little on the old side for anyone to expect a "quick” recovery, though "full” recovery bears out much hope.

The Patriot secondary took it on the chin for a lot of the 2005 season, and many people pointed to Harrison's injury as the main reason. Eugene Wilson was not nearly the free safety he was with Harrison back there, making the calls on assignments and adjustments. Duane Starks, Ty Law's replacement at cornerback, looked simply awful in getting beat on deep pass plays, but he complained about coverage assignments and asserted all along that he was merely being used in the wrong way, rather than him being burned badly.

No Harrison, no Law. That explains everything, right?

It does, somewhat. The Patriots must, unfortunately, plan for 2006 with the idea that Harrison will need another year off. But this time, they'll be ready for it, since they have had all offseason to prepare for it.

Belichick brought back former safety Tebucky Jones in a rather curious move. It's curious on the surface in that Wilson has surpassed Jones at the free safety position, delivering the hard hits Jones did but being a lot better in coverage, as well as a lot more inexpensive. But Jones is likely not back with the Patriots because of free safety, but rather strong safety. Jones may be veteran insurance in case Harrison cannot go for 2006, and if he's a better option than Artrell Hawkins or James Sanders.

Jones was tried out as cornerback when Pete Carroll drafted him in the first round of the 1998 draft. He failed miserably at cornerback, but flourished when Belichick put him back at his natural position. He played well in 2001, and nearly became a Super Bowl hero with a 98-yard fumble return for a touchdown which was nullified on a holding penalty.

If somehow the strong safety position can be nailed down, everything else actually looks okay. Some folks think the Patriots should draft a cornerback, but in reality, they don't need to unless they need to go for depth.

It bears wondering if anyone noticed that a few days ago, the Patriots resigned injured cornerback Randall Gay. Gay played in five games for the Patriots in 2005, started two of them, before being shelved for the season after the first Miami game. If Gay returns to full duty in 2006, it will give the Patriots three solid young cornerbacks with great upside. Both Gay and Asante Samuel have Super Bowl experience, and Ellis Hobbs had a generally good rookie campaign.

Gay started all three postseason games in his rookie season of 2004, and led the team in tackles in Super Bowl XXXIX. He was the man largely in charge of defending Terrell Owens. Owens was bragging on the sidelines that he could take Gay easily, and did make nine catches in the game. But Owens was not the deciding factor in the game, and Gay never permitted Owens to be that factor.

Samuel and Hobbs tied for the team lead in interceptions with only three each. It was not a hallmark year for Patriot interceptions. But both men showed great promise in coverage, and while neither could be termed as a "shutdown corner”, they play effectively enough so that, if the safety situation becomes what it once was, their overall play will improve. Throw Gay into the mix, and you've got something.

Now, what if you throw Law into the mix?

Law was released by the Jets, and is out there looking for work. And yes, he has been talking to the Patriots (and perhaps to Belichick himself). He could very well come back and reclaim one of the starting assignments. If that be the case, the depth at cornerback for the Patriots would negate the need to draft one with a high pick, if even at all.

The only other defensive back who might have a say in 2006 is backup cornerback Hank Poteat. All Poteat does is make a big play here and there, but he will not be counted on to be a major contributor barring a ton of injuries. Poteat stays if there is room for him and enough work to justify keeping him around.

Hobbs will also see time on special teams. With Tim Dwight gone and Bethel Johnson likely gone, Hobbs could become the lead kickoff return man. He was second on the team in kickoff returns, and had a higher return average than the top man, Johnson.

If the Patriots want most of their secondary problems to go away, either Harrison or Jones needs to step up and take the leadership scepter. There were way too many blown coverages in 2005, where a cornerback lets a receiver go deep, yet there was no one behind him to pick up the receiver. Safeties need to make those calls and be ready for those plays, and in 2005 the Patriots were wounded often because of this.

Harrison is doing everything humanly possible to return in 2006. His return might be a major factor if the Patriots are to make a serious run at another Super Bowl title.

But if he doesn't, it puts a great deal of pressure on whoever takes his place.

Next installment: special teams.