|Recovered from a broken foot, Patriots tight end David Thomas was stepping lively at practice. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)|
FOXBOROUGH - Practice was nearing an end yesterday afternoon on the sunny fields behind Gillette Stadium, and players were gathering for a final meeting with their position coaches.
Tank Williams didn't hesitate. Listed as a safety on the latest Patriots roster, he instead joined the linebackers.
The casual observer easily might have thought Williams lost his football road map. Linebackers wear jersey numbers in the 40s, 50s, and 90s, so his No. 26 stood out among the crowd. Williams later departed with linebackers coach Matt Patricia, the two presumably chatting about what had unfolded over the previous two hours, in which Williams worked mostly at linebacker.
Had the Patriots just successfully recruited a new member to their linebacker ranks, a group that appears to be in the midst of a significant overhaul?
Not exactly, but Williams's presence among the likes of fellow free agent signee Victor Hobson and first-round draft choice Jerod Mayo also wasn't an accident.
At 6 feet 2 inches, 223 pounds, Williams is still more of a pure safety, but he also prides himself on having linebacker-like skills. That means being physical enough to defend the run, but also fast enough to play in the deep third of the field in pass coverage.
Such a combination could be especially valuable in a sub defense, where extra defensive backs often replace defensive linemen or pure linebackers to add speed against multiple-receiver packages. At least that's what Williams, who signed a one-year, $605,000 deal with the Patriots March 6, hopes.
The formula goes something like this: Some safety + some linebacker = big value.
"I've played multiple positions throughout my career, so I feel like if I get my playbook, I should be able to do it," said Williams, who has suited up in 70 regular-season games (59 starts) in four seasons with the Titans (2002-05) and two with the Vikings (2006-07). "It's one of those things where you have to be accustomed to playing back in the field, or down close, and know the different tactics you have to use for each one."
Williams's potential contributions at linebacker could play a vital role at a position in which the Patriots are in transition, with two of their top five players from last season - Rosevelt Colvin and Junior Seau - not currently with the team.
The changes have resulted in some pressing questions. How much will Mayo contribute? Will Adalius Thomas play outside or inside? Can Hobson make the transition from outside linebacker in the Jets' 3-4 scheme to inside linebacker in the Patriots' 3-4?
Williams, who has totaled 283 career tackles (211 solo), can now be added to the mix. The question: Can he be a key contributor at linebacker in sub packages, which are becoming more common to counter the trend of offenses using three- and four-receiver formations?
The answer will come in the ensuing months, as a no-pads practice in shorts in late May is only a needle in football's year-round haystack. Such sessions, which don't feature hitting, are probably best utilized to determine how well players retain information, which is presumably why Williams was a senior presence among the 36 players (mostly rookies and newcomers) taking part in yesterday's passing camp.
"Whenever you come to a new team, it's kind of like a whirlwind, like learning a new language," he said. "You just have to get into your playbook. I'm just trying to learn the terminology, learn the defense, and get all the calls right."
Critics note that Williams has slowed since suffering a fractured left kneecap in 2006, yet if things work out, he wouldn't be the first hybrid-type player to spring to life in New England. Defensive end turned linebacker Mike Vrabel remains the benchmark in that regard.
As for safeties with linebacker-like skills, perhaps no one does it better in today's NFL than Patriot Rodney Harrison. His gutsy performance against the Colts last November - when he went wire to wire at linebacker so the Patriots could put more speed on the field - should be required viewing for those looking to duplicate it.
"Rodney is a great example. He can play in the box, he can play back," agreed Williams, noting that two all-time greats - Ronnie Lott and Steve Atwater - had similar skill sets. "One of the benefits is that they can't key on you one way or the other."
Third-year tight end David Thomas, who played in only one game last season because of a broken right foot, participated in parts of yesterday's practice. "It's always good to get back into the swing of things after you've been injured," he said while deflecting a question about whether he came back too early last year. Thomas also suffered a broken foot while participating in the 2007 offseason program . . . Fifth-round draft choice Matthew Slater continues to work at both safety and receiver . . . Third-year safety Ray Ventrone has been working exclusively at receiver . . . Owner Robert Kraft watched practice.