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Burris signing gives Patriots flex defense

FOXBOROUGH -- You have to hand it to the New England Patriots organization. They know how to line up their ducks.

Less than 24 hours after trading a second-round draft choice to acquire three-time Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon from the Bengals, they went out yesterday and agreed to terms with veteran cornerback Jeff Burris on a one-year deal worth $810,000, including a $25,000 signing bonus. On the surface, it is a small signing, the kind of mid-level roster move Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli are famous for. But it also has a deeper meaning in the ongoing war of attrition with Ty Law.

The 31-year-old Burris joins 38-year-old Otis Smith, Super Bowl starter Tyrone Poole, second-year man Asante Samuel, and, to some extent, young safety Eugene Wilson, who is a corner by trade, in a growing pincher movement designed to marginalize New England's beleaguered Pro Bowl cornerback. Just how effectively this squeeze play works is up to how Burris, Smith, and the rest play this summer. But if the Patriots become convinced that they can survive without Law, he soon may find himself added to the growing list of ex-Patriots scattered around the NFL.

Belichick fully understands that he has more than contractual problems with Law. He has a mutinous communication problem that is manageable only as long as the team continues to win. If anything goes wrong in the fall, regardless of the reasons for it, the Law situation could boil over and disrupt a carefully constructed locker room whose character already has been altered, possibly in the negative, by the addition of the talented but oft-truculent Dillon.

Law, too, never has been one to hold his tongue, even when things are going well. If problems develop in the fall, how likely is it that he would have nothing explosive to say? And what might it mean if the team is not sailing along as it did last year on what became a remarkable 15-game winning streak?

That's why the signing of Burris was a smart move by the Patriots, regardless of what you think of Law as a player, as long as Burris has something left in his tank. It was smart because a coach never can have too many options when there is a situation like this one percolating.

Burris, a 10-year pro, was released into free agency by the Bengals after two seasons in Cincinnati, and there are more than a few teams that feel his best years are behind him. Some, although not many, think he's shot after suffering two concussions last season.

But he was a serviceable corner for most of the eight years he spent in Buffalo and Indianapolis. Nothing spectacular, to be sure, but a professional who was good enough to start nearly all of his career, including most of last season in Cincinnati. Would he be Law if he were paired with Poole? No, but if Samuel or even Wilson took over Law's spot across from Poole, with veteran support from guys like Smith and Burris, could the secondary survive?

That is the question, but certainly it was a thinking man's move to stockpile veterans at Law's position along with the youthful Samuel and Wilson.

The acquisition of Dillon means New England doesn't have to address the running back situation in this weekend's draft and hence it could grab a young corner. The possibility exists that some of the top five corners still will be on the board at the 21st position, so the Patriots could further strengthen the secondary without having to deal with Law.

If they can find a team willing to pay a high ransom for him, on draft day or earlier, the addition of Burris would provide a bit more veteran support. Certainly Burris is not here to replace Law per se. He is probably best suited for a situational role as a nickel or dime back.

But if the Patriots come to believe Samuel is ready to hold down a starting position, or they find a way to shift Wilson to corner, then Burris's presence as a fifth or sixth defensive back would provide a comfort zone for defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel as he develops his plans for the fall campaign.

In the end, of course, nothing may change. Law may come back, as he still thinks is likely, and Burris would just be more veteran depth, which is always welcome on a team that covets roster flexibility as much as the Patriots do.

At the worst, the Patriots simply release Burris if it seems he no longer can play; it will cost them nothing but the $25,000 signing bonus. If he has enough left to start, then they have increased their flexibility in dealing with Law and dealing with the rest of the AFC.

And if Law remains in Foxborough, Burris still provides Belichick and Crennel another veteran performer who well understands how the game is played. Both on the field and off.

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