FOXBOROUGH - After cutting 10-year veteran cornerback Fernando Bryant Saturday, the Patriots yesterday made an equally surprising move to shore up a soft spot on the 53-man roster by signing 31-year-old corner Deltha O'Neal, a nine-year veteran and two-time Pro Bowler who was released by the Bengals.
The acquisition of O'Neal with just six days remaining before Sunday's opener against the Kansas City Chiefs seemed to raise some questions about whether the Patriots had found a suitable replacement for Asante Samuel, a 2007 Pro Bowler who signed a six-year, $57 million free agent deal with the Philadelphia Eagles Feb. 29.
"Deltha is a very experienced player and he has great playmak ing ability," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. "He is always around the ball. He has a lot of great skills. I think everybody is excited to have him here."
Brady recalled being intercepted twice by O'Neal in a game vs. the Broncos in October 2001.
"Yeah, I remember - very well," Brady said. "There were four picks in the second half, actually in the fourth quarter. He made a diving catch that was pretty awesome. You don't want to mess around with him that much. He has great ball skills.
"In college [at Cal], he could do everything. He was a receiver, defensive back, and he returned kicks. Hopefully, he can add some of that playmaking ability to our team."
O'Neal, who was due to earn a $2.85 million base salary this season had he remained with the Bengals, signed a one-year contract with the Patriots; financial terms were not disclosed. After Denver selected him in the first round of the 2000 draft (15th overall), he was traded four years later to Cincinnati. O'Neal set a Bengals record with 10 interceptions in 2005, which earned him his second trip to the Pro Bowl.
The 5-foot-11-inch, 194-pounder played in 16 games last season and had 56 tackles (43 solo), an interception, 16 passes defensed, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. He missed all of the team's voluntary offseason program, found himself behind during training camp with new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, and was cut when he was unable to beat out second-year player David Jones for the third corner spot.
So what did the Patriots see in him?
"Well, we played him last year in Cincinnati and I did some work on him going into that game and saw him the rest of the season and in preseason this year," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "He is a very athletic corner, good ball skills, pretty big guy that goes up and plays a lot of press coverage - he has done that in the past. A physical player, good tackler, good interceptor, returner - we have seen the back of his jersey on that a couple of times."
O'Neal breezed through the locker room, declining to talk to reporters, then donned the No. 21 jersey and joined the team for practice in full pads as the fifth cornerback on the active roster. He joins fourth-year man Ellis Hobbs, rookies Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite, and veteran free agent Lewis Sanders.
"I'm very excited," said veteran safety Rodney Harrison. "I played with him over at the Pro Bowl before and I've known him for a long time. Tremendous player. Very athletic guy. He can do a lot of things. Definitely excited about adding a guy like that to our defense."
But can O'Neal step in quickly?
"I'm sure he can learn our system," Harrison said. "The guy can play football, we all know that. It's just a matter of picking up our terminology, our adjustments, our formations, and everything like that and just coming out here and playing football."
The corner position, however, has its nuances. And as Hobbs pointed out, O'Neal could require a bit of an adjustment period there.
"I wouldn't want to say any position is easy," Hobbs said. "If you were in man coverage all day, I think that's easy enough, just tell him to go out there and stick that guy. In a defense like this, where it is far more complicated than your average defense, and the way we have to communicate back there, it's definitely not a position you want to get dropped into on the New England Patriots.
"We always work guys in wherever they are - young guys, old guys coming out of different organizations. But it's definitely not one of those type of defenses where you can just line up and think you can play."
Belichick wasn't prepared to say where O'Neal would fit into the mix for Sunday's opener.
"We will go through the week and see how that all develops," he said. "I mean, I really don't know at this point what it will be this week, but I am glad we have him on our team and I think that he will help us.
"How exactly that is or when or in what spot remains to be seen. In the meantime, we'll go with what we have got, get him in there, and try to figure it out as we go."
Mike Reiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report.