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Meriweather cut loose by Patriots

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / September 4, 2011

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One of the moves the Patriots made yesterday to get down to the NFL-mandated roster limit of 53 players was releasing safety Brandon Meriweather, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2007.

Though Meriweather played in his second straight Pro Bowl at the end of last season, there have been rumblings that there would be some sort of move made with him almost since training camp began.

However, once New England cut James Sanders - the quiet, highly respected elder statesman of the unit - on Monday, it appeared Meriweather might be staying because the club had so little experience at the position.

But, clearly, the Patriots were ready to move on from the 27-year-old, who never missed a game in his time with the team, starting 40 of 64 regular-season contests.

The Patriots did little to quiet the talk of their unhappiness with Meriweather during training camp by bringing in free agent Dashon Goldson for a workout - and offering him a contract, though Goldson opted to re-sign with the 49ers - and having veteran Darren Sharper, an All-Pro each of the last two seasons, in for a workout.

Then there were the days toward the end of camp when Meriweather saw the majority of his snaps with the first-team defense go to Sergio Brown. Thursday night, in the preseason finale against the Giants, Meriweather didn’t take the field on defense until after halftime; instead, Josh Barrett, getting his first game action for New England, started the game with Patrick Chung in the defensive backfield. Brown came on when Barrett came off in the first half.

After the game, Meriweather said he “didn’t know’’ what his situation with the team was, adding that “our coaches do a great job rotating us all in’’ to the game.

Coach Bill Belichick echoed that on Friday when asked about Meriweather’s playing time.

“We mixed up our rotations like we usually do,’’ he said.

But Belichick followed that with a tepid response when asked about Meriweather’s performance in training camp and the preseason, saying, “It’s been good. Brandon has been out there every day. He’s worked hard.

“He’s been able to do everything and I think he’s gotten better, worked a lot on his man-to-man coverage. He’s out there practicing like everybody else is.’’

Director of player personnel Nick Caserio gave much the same answer a couple of weeks earlier when he was asked to assess Meriweather.

New England tried to trade Meriweather, according to one league source, but there wasn’t much of a market for him, though that may be because it seemed apparent the Patriots would cut him, so teams weren’t willing to give up anything for someone they could potentially get off the open market.

With Meriweather cut, none of the nine members of the Patriots’ ’07 draft class are still with the team just four-plus years later.

His tenure with the team got off to a rocky start thanks to a couple of incidents during Meriweather’s time at the University of Miami: during a brawl with Florida International, he stomped on a couple of players; a couple of months earlier, he returned fire after roommate Willie Cooper was shot in the buttocks outside their off-campus apartment by an unknown assailant. Meriweather was cleared of any wrongdoing in the incident because he was found to be acting in self-defense and the gun he used was legally registered to him.

He stayed out of trouble both on and off the field with the Patriots until last October, when his vicious helmet-to-helmet hit on then-Raven Todd Heap became Exhibit A in the NFL’s clamp-down on potentially dangerous hits.

Then he was tied to a shooting in his hometown of Apopka, Fla., this spring, though again he was cleared of any wrongdoing. Relatives told the Globe that Meriweather was a peacemaker during the late-night drama, not an instigator.

With Sanders and now Meriweather, the Patriots’ two most experienced safeties, cut loose, the team is effectively handing the reins of the position over to Chung, their first pick in 2009 (34th overall).

At this point, it is unclear who will start next to him. The Patriots could always turn to Sharper, who would like the chance to play in New England. Signing him after the regular-season opener means his contract is not guaranteed, and would protect the Patriots financially if the 36-year-old has any lingering knee issues (he underwent microfracture surgery shortly after the Saints’ Super Bowl win over Indianapolis in February 2010 and started only one game last season).

Brown and Barrett, as well as recently signed James Ihedigbo, remain on the roster, and there has been speculation that second-round draft pick Ras-I Dowling or waiver-wire pickup Antwaun Molden could slide from cornerback to safety because of their size.

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