THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Driven into a corner

Patriots are hoping Bodden is the one

LEIGH BODDENSamuel successor? LEIGH BODDENSamuel successor?
By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / June 8, 2009
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FOXBOROUGH - Leigh Bodden laughed before intercepting the notion of numerical significance like he would a quarterback's pass. Bodden, part of the Patriots' offseason overhaul at cornerback, has been assigned No. 23, one higher than the No. 22 that belonged to Asante Samuel.

Twenty-three is greater than 22. "Hey, that's your words, not mine," said Bodden after a recent organized team activity practice.

Bodden wore No. 28 for the first six seasons of his NFL career, five with the Browns and last season with the Lions. But the most important number he could bring to the Patriots is one, as in a No. 1 cornerback, something the team lacked last season following Samuel's free agent departure to Philadelphia.

It might be hard to envision that a cornerback released by the woeful Lions could emerge as the successor to Samuel, but Bodden's body of work, his experience playing for former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel in Cleveland for three seasons, and his early play in OTAs belies what happened in Detroit last season.

"Leigh is a [heck] of a football player," said Patriots linebacker Paris Lenon, a teammate of Bodden's last season on the 0-16 Lions. "I think he's in kind of a similar situation to myself. I'm just really hungry, you know. I can't speak for him, but I anticipate he feels the same way. What happened last year is in the past, but it still kind of gnaws at you a bit."

On their way to NFL ignominy - the first 0-16 season in league history - the Lions had a league-low four interceptions and only one by a defensive back - belonging to Bodden. The 27-year-old Bodden, who also forced three fumbles, was more a victim of the Lions' toothless Tampa-2 scheme than his own decline in play in Detroit.

With 13 career interceptions, Bodden knows people question which part was a fluke, him only intercepting one pass last season or coming down with 11 interceptions his final three seasons in Cleveland, including a career-high six in 2007, the same number Samuel had on his way to the Pro Bowl that season.

"You know, I can't really stress about what everybody else thinks," Bodden said. "I can only do what I can. I was fortunate enough to be able to sign with another team, another team saw that I could bring something to the table, and I'm just fortunate and happy that it was the New England Patriots. Now is no time to look back. I've just got to look forward and can't worry about what people think about last year."

Proving himself is nothing new for Bodden. Coming out of high school in Hyattsville, Md., he had to shop himself to colleges and ended up at Duquesne, a Division 1-AA (now the Football Championship Subdivision) school. Even after finishing his career with 28 interceptions, Bodden was so lightly regarded coming out of college that not only did he go undrafted, he wasn't even invited to the NFL Scouting Combine.

He hooked on with the Browns as an undrafted free agent in 2003. In 2004, he tied for the team lead in special teams tackles with 18, despite only playing in eight games because of a torn pectoral muscle. The next year he became a starter at right corner and tied for the team lead in interceptions with three.

"I'm glad this is the story of my life," said Bodden. "It just makes me that much hungrier and work that much harder. I'm glad this is my road."

Freed from pigskin purgatory in Detroit, Bodden is hoping that redemptive road takes him back to his form of 2007, when he tied for second in the NFL in takeaways with nine (six interceptions and three fumble recoveries) and Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson called him "one of the better cover corners in the NFL."

"I have to study film on him the way I do Champ Bailey, Chris McAlister, and Dre' Bly," Johnson told Cleveland reporters then.

Bodden said he has studied Samuel.

"I don't know him at all personally, but I've watched film on him," Bodden said. "A lot of the guys I consider the best I try to watch and just see how they play and see if I can pick up on anything that they've done. I don't have no shame in that. I got to get better any way I can. I definitely watched a lot of the guys that I consider the best in this league."

Bodden already has taken a page out of Samuel's playbook. Like Samuel following the 2007 season, Bodden has found a way to avoid the franchise tag. One of the provisions of the one-year, $2.25 million deal he signed with New England in March is that team can't tag him following this season. That would give Bodden a chance to recoup the $8.6 million roster bonus he had to forgo when the Lions, who after trading for him last offseason, signed him to a four-year, $27 million extension, then let him go in February.

While Bodden played left corner last season for Detroit, the same spot Samuel manned in Foxborough, he has been spending most of his time at right corner with the Patriots, with a few repetitions on the left side.

Bodden said he doesn't mind playing either side or even shadowing the opposing team's best receiver, as he did one year in Cleveland, but he doesn't want to be cast in Samuel's shadow.

"I'm just Leigh Bodden, man," he said. "I'm just trying to help this team any way possible. I'm not trying to live in the shadows of anybody. I'm not trying to fill anybody's shoes. I just want to be me and make plays the way I know how to."

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

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