|Safety Eugene Wilson takes to the air to avoid landing on wide receiver Reche Caldwell, who hits the turf after making a catch in the afternoon session. (JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF)|
Patriots' Scott out for season
FOXBOROUGH -- He saw his teammate land with a thud and remain down, but Randall Gay still hoped for the best. Then he saw how cornerback Chad Scott left the field -- on the back of a cart grimacing as he held his left knee -- and assumed the worst.
"It's never a good time to see the cart," he said.
The Patriots have held six practices since training camp opened Friday, and Scott's injury, which occurred on the first day, has reshuffled the defensive backfield deck. The team placed Scott on injured reserve yesterday, ending his season.
A sturdy veteran in his 11th year who started nine games last season, he had been lining up with the team's first-unit in camp, so the loss cuts deep.
"He was really looking forward to this season," Gay said.
Gay explained that any time a player is lost for the season, it reverberates throughout the entire locker room, especially among players at the same position because they spend so much time together.
"That really hurt me," he said. "Chad is such a good person and such a hard worker, one of the biggest competitors on the team. To see him go down, on a play in which he was untouched . . . it hurts all of us."
Added safety Eugene Wilson: "He's a leader. If you watch his work ethic, it's just great; he was one of the [offseason] award winners this year. He's a real competitor, but moving forward we just have to deal with the guys we have now."
So where do the Patriots -- whose depth already has been taxed with Asante Samuel staying away from camp -- go from here?
In recent practices, Gay has worked with the first unit.
Entering his fourth season, Gay has been limited to just eight games over the last two seasons because of injuries -- he was carted off the field two years ago after hurting his ankle in Carolina -- but had what coach Bill Belichick felt was his best offseason. Gay is hoping that momentum carries him through the 2007 campaign.
"I'm back this year and ready to go, ready to play hard," he said. "I feel great."
He'll feel even better if he can duplicate his performance from 2004, when he was a surprise contributor (starting the final 12 games) to the Patriots' Super Bowl season after making the roster as an unheralded rookie free agent.
While the 5-foot-11-inch, 190-pound Gay has been working opposite Ellis Hobbs with the top unit, the Patriots have had veteran Tory James and rookie first-round draft choice Brandon Meriweather as the second-string corners.
James has 86 career starts and hasn't missed a game over the last four seasons, totaling 21 interceptions over that time.
Signed to a one-year deal as a free agent after four seasons with the Bengals, he's made a solid first impression in New England.
"I think he's done well," Belichick said of James. "He's a smart guy, very professional, well-prepared. He's on top of it. He keeps earning the respect with everybody by the way he goes about things."
One of the main adjustments for the 34-year-old James has been adapting to a different defensive system, as the Bengals played a lot of blitz zone, which isn't a big part of the Patriots' repertoire. Belichick pointed out that James's height (6-2) makes it difficult for quarterbacks to throw the ball over him in Cover-2 coverage (safety help over the top), and when he's in the short areas of the field.
That was also an asset Scott (6-1, 205) brought to the field, in addition to his ability to support the run. James, who weighs 190 pounds, isn't considered as sturdy in run support.
Meanwhile, the possibility Meriweather could emerge at cornerback instead of safety -- the position he primarily played in college -- is not far-fetched. One NFL scout who wrote up a report on Meriweather coming out of the University of Miami this year felt he would be a better fit at corner anyway, mainly because of concerns about his size (5-11, 200) playing safety.
The 23-year-old Meriweather started three games at cornerback last year, including one in which he was matched up against Georgia Tech's' Calvin Johnson, and he has hardly looked out of place on the practice fields the last two days.
Fellow rookie Mike Richardson (sixth-round pick) and second-year man Gemara Williams also have taken some repetitions at corner. Another possibility is Wilson, but he acknowledges "it seems as if I'm doing safety permanently, so I'll try to zone in on safety and get comfortable with just that right now."
Surely, the Patriots will explore the free agent market for other options, but the pickings are generally slim at this time.
Arguably the best possibility, however, is the player who has remained at his Florida residence throughout the offseason -- Samuel.
While it's natural to wonder if Scott's season-ending injury could spark the Patriots to agree to a compromise that would entice Samuel to return to camp -- such as promising not to place the franchise tag on him next season, or advancing some of his $7.79 million salary -- the team is generally careful about setting such precedent.
Scott, who was entering his third year with the Patriots after eight seasons with the Steelers, was entering the final year of his contract. His agent, Mason Ashe, said he remained upbeat.
"Chad is a very strong-minded, rooted guy, a solid person," Ashe said. "I spoke to him a couple times [yesterday] and he is not different than he's always been. He takes challenges head on. He's confident and strong, like he is always is. That hasn't changed."