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July 12, 2007
Does Samuel Hold The Key To Success?
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net

Next in a series of positional analysis for the 2006 New England Patriots. Today: secondary.

All these free agent signings and trades, yet none of them may matter if the opposition suddenly finds the Patriots horribly susceptible to the passing game.

You have arguably the best defensive line in the business. You have a plum free agent signing in the linebacker corps, joining a group of smart yet aging veterans. But behind the front seven lurks a group of men who have such issues as durability, age, experience, and one who thinks that he should be paid like Champ Bailey.

That latter issue will dominate all training camp talk which isn't related to Randy Moss. Already set to dig in his heels and provide the next challenge to the Patriot Way, Asante Samuel is torqued off blind at the Patriots for slapping the franchise tag on him (when asked why he didn't attend an offseason charity golf tournament, his response was something like "Are you kidding me?"). No one really knows when, or if, he will report to the Patriots for the 2007 season. Like it or not, this is a huge deal for the Patriots, and it could have a huge bearing on how 2007 turns out for them.

First of all, why is Samuel so angry? In 2006, Samuel made just under $841,000 including bonuses. By franchising him (which means that he would get the average of the top five paid players at his position and a team which signs him would have to surrender two first round draft picks to the Patriots), Samuel would make just under $8 million, the highest cap figure on the team (Tom Brady is just under $7.5 million for 2007). But franchised players basically lose the ability to hit the open market, and Samuel is upset that he can't get more if he were allowed to peddle his wares to the highest bidder.

Samuel had a breakout year in 2006, perfect timing since it was a walk year for him. He tied Bailey for the NFL lead in interceptions with ten, and showed that he was becoming one of the best shutdown corners in the league. In the 2006 postseason, Samuel showed that he deserved his big bump in pay by putting the clamps on Charger receivers in the AFC Divisional game, then returned a Peyton Manning pass 39 yards for a touchdown in the AFC Championship game.

But since Samuel tied Bailey for the interception lead, Samuel is convinced that he should be paid Bailey money. Bailey's cap hit for 2006 was just under $9.5 million, about two million more dollars than the franchise figure Samuel stands to make with the Patriots. Getting your salary raised up from $841,000 to $8 million would make most folks plenty happy, but Samuel is instead acting like he is more concerned over the big payday instead of winning more championships.

Samuel is good, but he is no Champ Bailey. Bailey is right now the uncontested best at his position in the league. $8 million is about right for Samuel, someone who has shown that he can play at high levels but has not shown that he can sustain that high level for more than just one year. Samuel is no doubt looking at the big picture, how long his window is for earning the most money he can, wary of how the Patriots treated Adam Vinatieri (also a former franchised player, and on more than one occasion, something which made the kicker a very unhappy camper), and listening to Patriot refugee Deion Branch for guidance in this matter.

With two Super Bowl rings securely on his fingers, Samuel could very well be placing future championships much lower on his priority list. Except for Vinatieri, you would be hard pressed to find a Patriot who found riches and more rings elsewhere instead of just riches. NFL careers are fragile, and players at some point have to come to grips with being able to walk away from their playing careers as financially secure as possible (former Patriot nose tackle Ted Washington at least had the good character to come out and admit that he had to take care of his family when he bolted to Oakland). When you look at all the talk going on about how poorly NFL alumni are treated, Samuel's stance does make sense, to some degree.

Samuel will do one of three things. He will come back just at the end of training camp, agree to the franchise deal and make the Patriots promise that they will not franchise him again for 2008. He could also sit out the first ten weeks of the season and play the final six weeks, the minimum number of weeks to play and still accrue a year's service time. Or, he could sit out the entire season and hope that the Patriots blink somewhere down the line, an unlikely scenario given the loss of a year's playing time.

So, what do the Patriots do if Samuel is a no-show? Ellis Hobbs is still a work in progress and has done some good work in the past, but he is becoming more well known for upsetting superstar opponents than he is defending them. Randall Gay, who has previous Super Bowl experience, is coming back from an injury but is at best a second-tier cornerback instead of a prime stud. Gay and Hobbs would be the preseason favorites to start if Samuel cannot be persuaded to show up to either camp or the regular season on time.

On the bench, you have veteran retreads Chad Scott and Ray Mickens. Mickens knows Bill Belichick's system quite well, but he is 34 years old. Scott has had problems staying healthy, and will turn 33 in September. While both men have had considerable experience in big games, neither of them are adequate replacements for Samuel. Willie Andrews, a rookie in 2006, is still considered a project who could push one of the veterans out of the picture for 2007.

One other idea that might be used is moving free safety Eugene Wilson to cornerback, his position while at the University of Illinois. That would open up the free safety position for first round draft pick Brandon Meriweather of Miami, who played the position in college. Meriweather is a hard hitter, and fortunately more people are talking about his hard hitting during football plays instead of after them (to wit: Florida International and that celebrated brawl). Wilson would likely team up with Hobbs, and Meriweather would then join Rodney Harrison in the deep backfield.

And that assumes Harrison is healthy enough to go. Harrison, who suffered still another debilitating injury at Tennessee last season, is nearing the end of the line (he will turn 35 in December). If he can stay healthy, he can at least provide the leadership and signal calling ability that Wilson needed and Meriweather will definitely need. Artrell Hawkins has filled in well in place of Harrison when needed, and James Sanders is a good young replacement possibility for Harrison down the road.

So maybe the Patriots can absorb the loss of Samuel, if it comes to that. Everyone is hoping that Samuel and the Patriots can somehow come to terms on a long-term deal which would keep him here in Foxborough. But if Samuel still insists that he be paid like Bailey, he will not finish his career as a Patriot. If Harrison can stay healthy, the Patriots should be okay either way.

This is just one of those times when a guy has a career year and it's a bad thing. Two rings and more likely on the horizon sometimes aren't enough to keep good players around.

And don't ever discount today's players taking a long, hard look at the 50-something guys who are broken down, in body, spirit and wallet. Ain't gonna be me, says Asante.

Next installment: special teams.


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