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10 Questions: Three players, one spot?

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff  July 11, 2010 08:00 AM

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james-sanders.JPGPart 8 in a 10-part series examining key storylines leading into Patriots' training camp...

The question: Who starts opposite Brandon Meriweather at safety?

Three factors: Stability offered by James Sanders; Patrick Chung's growth; Risk vs. reward with Brandon McGowan

Finding the answer: It doesn't seem like much of a leap to assume that Meriweather will be one of the Patriots' two starting safeties come the start of the regular season; he started all of New England's games last year - playing over 1,000 snaps - and pulled in a career-best and team-leading five interceptions (Leigh Bodden also grabbed five picks) to go with 52 tackles.
And he got to play in his hometown of Miami as a Pro Bowl reserve, fulfilling one of his personal goals.

But Meriweather can't roam the defensive backfield alone, and New England appears to have three men vying for the spot alongside the former first-round draft pick: veteran James Sanders, second-year Patrick Chung and Brandon McGowan, brought in last year as a free agent.

Sanders is not flashy and won't be making the kind of plays that make the Sunday NFL post-game shows, but he is highly respected by his teammates, a steadying presence and a great communicator on field. After starting every game he had played in for the previous two years, Sanders lost his spot to McGowan last year when he was slowed by a shoulder injury; even when he returned to the field, McGowan continued to be the starter. But not only did Sanders lose his spot in the starting 11, he saw a stunning - and still unexplained - dropoff in the number of snaps he played. For the four-game stretch from the Colts game in Week 10 to the Pats' loss in Miami in Week 13, Sanders was on the field for just 20 (out of a possible 252) defensive snaps.

He was re-inserted into the starting lineup in Week 14, and finished the season there, playing 85 percent of the snaps the rest of the way. To many observers, there was a visible improvement in the play of New England's secondary with Sanders back on the field, and the team finished the season 3-1 to clinch the AFC East title.

During spring camps, Chung, New England's first draft pick in 2009, made no excuses for his
play as a rookie, saying that he simply didn't know all he needed to know to get on the field more. He spent nearly all of the offseason in Foxborough, and at the close of mini-camp, Nick Caserio named him as one of a small group of second-year players who have impressed this offseason. Coming out of Oregon, Bill Belichick lauded Chung for his ability to handle multiple responsibilities on the field, and judging from OTAs and mini-camp, Chung may be moving quite a bit this season as well.

Whether he has made a big enough jump to unseat Sanders remains to be seen, though he would be considered the top contender to do so.

Though he did start 11 games last season, McGowan could see his snaps at safety decline this year given the competition. Entering the second year of a two-year pact he signed with New England after four seasons with Chicago, McGowan proudly describes his playing style as "reckless" - but reckless play can sometimes mean playing out of position and leaving teammates out to dry. He is certainly capable of delivering the big hit, but that's not always what is needed, and going for the knockout can lead to a costly miss.

The opinion here would be to go with Sanders, but expect a strong challenge from Chung.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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