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Backups Butler, Arrington eye starring role

Third CB spot up for grabs

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / August 7, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - This being the Patriots and Bill Belichick being the coach, there are no sure things when it comes to playing time and roster spots. Unless you’re Tom Brady, and maybe after a bad day of practice not even his spot is secure.

But that doesn’t mean some things can’t be confidently penciled in. So grab your sharpened No. 2 and write the names Devin McCourty and Leigh Bodden in as the starting cornerbacks this season.

The battle is for the third spot, the “star’’ as the Patriots call their nickel corner. Darius Butler and Kyle Arrington have been sharing reps in that slot since Arrington began practicing a few days ago.

That Butler, a second-round pick in 2009, and Arrington, an undrafted rookie the Patriots picked up the same season, are battling for playing time is a familiar story line: Last year, when Bodden went on the shelf for the season after suffering a shoulder injury in an exhibition game, Butler got the chance to start opposite McCourty.

But just three games into the season, after Butler gave up a touchdown to Jet Braylon Edwards, Butler lost his job to Arrington.

At the time, Arrington was largely untested as a corner. Signed to the Patriots’ practice squad early in ’09 after he was released by the Buccaneers, he was promoted to the 53-man roster midway through the year, after the Browns tried to grab him off the practice squad. In just eight games, Arrington had 17 special teams tackles.

Coming off that performance, he was considered a special teamer first, and backup cornerback second. But after Butler faltered in New York, Arrington surprisingly began practicing with the first team, and was in the starting lineup for the next game, against Buffalo.

He remained the starter for the rest of the year, while Butler was benched for the Pittsburgh game in Week 10 after a poor showing in Cleveland.

Fast-forward to this year and both Butler and Arrington are looking at their roles potentially changing. Bodden is back, McCourty is coming off a Pro Bowl season, and the Patriots drafted yet another cornerback, Ras-I Dowling, with the first pick in the second round.

“We’re all a close-knit group and at the end of the day it is competition,’’ said Arrington. “We’re playing for playing time, not just playing time but roster spots, too. So we’ll just go out there and we can only do our job, and whoever comes out as a starter or as the star or the nickel, it will be deserved.’’

“I’m not worried,’’ said Butler. “I don’t think you can ever have enough corners in this league and things always happen, somebody leaving or coming or injuries. And I just have to be ready when my number’s called, whenever it’s called, wherever it’s called, and I’ll be ready to get in there and play [well].’’

Though they are in direct competition, Arrington said there has not been any animosity between he and Butler. As if to underscore the point, yesterday Butler took to Twitter to send a picture of Arrington “stealing’’ a package of coconut water out of McCourty’s locker after practice. Bodden responded, finding humor in the heist, particularly since Arrington tries to hide his belongings to avoid the same fate.

While the Patriots work to find the right players for the defensive line - they have had no fewer than five in for workouts, and signed former Bear Mark Anderson on Friday - they will also need good pass coverage. The Jets lost Edwards in free agency, but retained Santonio Holmes and also signed a motivated Plaxico Burress and savvy veteran Derrick Mason.

The Dolphins still have Brandon Marshall and Davone Bess, and the Bills added versatile Brad Smith to Stevie Johnson, who had a strong season last year. The Patriots also play San Diego, Dallas, and Indianapolis, teams with potent air attacks.

So as Butler noted, cornerback depth will definitely come in handy.

Butler and Arrington promise to be ready, no matter which winds up playing more. Playing the star means facing receivers like Wes Welker, smaller, quicker guys. Arrington said there is a big difference between playing outside and the star; the latter requires “great feet, [that the player] really be disciplined, stick to your leverage.’’

Butler feels he has to focus on improving all aspects of his play. Arrington acknowledged the confidence boost he received by getting so many snaps last season.

Both know, however, what all Patriots know: All you can do is your job, and Belichick and the coaching staff will determine who is on the field.

“Under Coach Belichick, we all just go out there and do whatever is called upon us to do, and whoever is the starter or not the starter, we’re always ready,’’ Arrington said. “Your [number] can be called at any time and just take advantage of the opportunity when you get it.’’

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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