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He hopes he has it covered

Cornerback Patriots' weak link, but Bryant intends to prove otherwise

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / July 26, 2008

FOXBOROUGH - Fernando Bryant knows what people are saying about the Patriots' collection of cornerbacks. The consensus is that if the nearly perfect Patriots have one weakness, it's at the position he plays.

Bryant, a 10-year veteran who has started 109 of 110 career games, isn't taking the lack of faith personally.

"I guess if I was on the outside looking in, I would say that, too, when you look at the people who are returning and the people who left," he said yesterday. "You have to pick a spot, and the secondary is where it's at. I'm cool with that."

The Patriots and coach Bill Belichick are professing there is a lot of competition at the position, but that's a euphemism for cornerback-by-committee. Nobody knows who will emerge from the crop of cover men to replace Asante Samuel and Randall Gay, both of whom departed for greener pastures in the offseason.

But with Ellis Hobbs, the lone returning starter, beginning camp on the physically unable to perform list after having offseason surgeries for a hernia and torn labrum in his left shoulder, all the corners are getting a good look.

"I think we will have good competition there. We will just have to see how that all plays out," said Belichick. "We have some experienced players there, and we have some young players that seem to have some talent. We will put them out there and let them go.

"We have a couple of veteran players that have played in a lot of games for us that are also in that mix. We will just see how all that fits together. A lot of those players haven't played for us before, so we will just have to see where they fit and how the whole group will mesh together."

Bryant may be the best bet to serve as Samuel's successor. The 31-year-old started all 16 games at left cornerback for the Lions last season and tied his career highs with two interceptions and 14 passes defended. His former coach with Detroit, Rod Marinelli, maintained Patriots fans would like Bryant, calling him a "pro" and a "very productive player."

So, why did the Lions simply let him go after four seasons?

The 5-foot-10-inch, 175-pounder was an ill fit for the cover-2 scheme Marinelli employs, which requires bigger, more physical cornerbacks who can come up and engage in run support. Last year was the first time Bryant played every game since 2003, as he suffered a variety of injuries, including a broken clavicle in 2005 and a concussion in 2006.

Plus, Bryant would have had a $4 million salary cap charge for the Lions, who traded for Cleveland corner Leigh Bodden.

"I'll tackle and everything, but it's a durability thing. I'm not a safety," said Bryant, who signed a one-year, $730,000 deal with the Patriots, with $46,000 in bonuses. "It's a point of going in and being physical every single play. In the cover-2 scheme, that's what corners do, and over a long season, it kind of wears on you. I'm more of a reading routes, playing coverage and everything [guy]. I liked it [in Detrioit]. It was great there, but it was time for a change."

That change reunites Bryant with his first NFL defensive coordinator, Dom Capers, who was in Jacksonville when Bryant joined the team as a first-round pick in 1999. Capers joined the Patriots during the offseason as special assistant/secondary coach.

Bryant said some of the schemes and techniques the Patriots employ are similar to the ones he learned under Capers in Jacksonville, where Bryant spent his first five seasons. They just use different terminology.

That familiarity could help Bryant separate himself from the rest of the cornerback bunch, which consists of either unproven NFL performers (rookies Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite and second-year man Mike Richardson) or veteran castoffs (Bryant and fellow veterans Lewis Sanders and Jason Webster).

Bryant scoffed at the idea he is coming in with the mentality that he must replace Samuel, whose 16 interceptions the last two seasons were tops in the NFL. Any pressure to perform he feels is tied to the team's success, not Samuel's.

"It doesn't get much bigger than playing for the Patriots," said Bryant. "The pressure is still there, [big] contract or not. You have to look at their record. The bottom line is, over the last six or seven years, they've won a lot of games. The expectation here is to win and to win consistently. Coming from Detroit, I had four rough years there as far as win-loss column. You want to win. The bottom line is nothing else is going to be accepted."

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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