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Patriots trio hoping to hang on the corner

FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots cornered the market on new corners over the last two seasons.

Six different cornerbacks started at least one game in 2005. Ditto for the 2004 season. Stability there was not.

Fast-forward to 2006 training camp, where the Patriots had their 20th practice yesterday at Gillette Stadium and the trio of Ellis Hobbs, Asante Samuel, and Eugene Wilson were working to reverse that pattern.

Hobbs and Wilson haven't missed a practice since camp opened July 28; Samuel has participated in 17. Wilson is a newcomer to the group, having moved down from safety, a switch that is not necessarily permanent though there is a very real possibility that it will be.

``I think we complement each other pretty well, we're developing cohesiveness," said Hobbs, now in his second year after starting the final 10 games of 2005. ``We know what each other will do, how each other will play, and we can really vibe off each other."

This week marks a significant test for the cornerbacks, according to coach Bill Belichick. The Patriots have started preparations for Saturday's exhibition game against Arizona, a team that runs a three-wide receiver offense featuring Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Bryant Johnson, with Kurt Warner pulling the trigger at quarterback.

Fitzgerald led the NFL with 103 receptions last season, while Boldin was second with 102. They combined for 2,811 yards and 17 touchdowns. Johnson chipped in with 40 catches and one score.

On the tale of the tape, the cornerback trio appears overmatched against Fitzgerald (6 feet 3 inches, 226 pounds), Boldin (6-1, 220), and Johnson (6-3, 216). But Hobbs, who prides himself on taking ``aggressive risks," said it's a challenge they are embracing.

``You have some of the top receivers in the league coming in, this is the way you measure yourself," he said. ``You only know how good you are by playing against the best."

Throughout the preseason, the 5-9, 190-pound Hobbs said he's worked almost exclusively on the left side of the defense, flip-flopping with Samuel (5-10, 185), who is now on the right. That has left Wilson, the sturdiest player of the group at 5-10, 195, as the slot corner.

``Inside, you're in there more for run support, doing a lot more jamming, defending the inner field," said Wilson, who played cornerback in college at Illinois but has been primarily a safety over three seasons in New England. ``It's been working out well. If we see anything the other person can do, we try to help out. We've all been working well together."

Belichick concurred.

``All three of them are playing at a good level, a better level than they were last year," he said. ``They've worked hard, and their fundamentals and techniques are a lot better than they were last year.

``We're not making as many mistakes, having as many communication problems. We're closer to the receivers. I'm not saying we intercept every pass, far from it, but it's being close to receivers, being competitive on routes, and forcing quarterbacks to make better throws and forcing receivers to make tougher catches.

``I think we're a little bit better than we were last year in a similar time frame. We'll see where it goes as we move forward. I think it's been a very competitive situation with all those guys out there."

Perhaps the most pressing question is whether Wilson will remain with the corners or return to safety. He prides himself on being an all-around defensive back and doesn't have a preference.

The team has been working Artrell Hawkins and James Sanders as the top safeties, and Rodney Harrison will replace one of them once healthy. In regards to Wilson, Belichick acknowledged that if the team wants him to focus on safety during the season, time is running out to make that move.

``With any player, that decision comes when you're sure it's the right thing to do or you're forced to make a move, and then you make it," he said. ``I'm not sure we're at either one of those points right now, but it's not that far in the future."

Samuel, who has played in 52 games (29 starts) over the last three seasons, has been impressed with Wilson.

``He was a corner in college, and you never lose what you have," he said. ``He can do it."

Meanwhile, Samuel wants to prove he's one of the top-level corners in the game, as he is scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency after the season. He said teaming up with Wilson and Hobbs has been good.

``We've just been out there competing, working hard, getting our communication down," he said. ``If I make a mistake, or one of them makes a mistake, we correct each other and try to give each other pointers.

``We're all tight, we kick it together."

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