Bill Belichick keeps a watchful eye on rookie defensive backs Jonathan Wilhite (24) and Terrence Wheatley (22). (Robert E. Klein / For the Globe)
Eighth in a series of position snapshots leading into Patriots training camp, focusing on cornerbacks:
|STRENGTH||Experience/intelligence. Between Fernando Bryant, Ellis Hobbs and Jason Webster – three top players on the depth chart – there are a combined 20 seasons, 244 career regular-season games played and 216 career regular-season starts.|
|WEAKNESS||Playmaking void. Asante Samuel, who departed to the Eagles in free agency, totaled 16 interceptions over the last two regular seasons, and had 22 in his five years in New England. The combination of Bryant, Hobbs and Webster -- the projected top three players on the depth chart at this time – has 24 interceptions over a combined 20 regular seasons.|
|TOP QUESTIONS||How will the loss of Asante Samuel affect the club? Will any of the team’s under-the-radar free-agent moves – Fernando Bryant, Jason Webster, Lewis Sanders – pay off with a big reward? Will Hobbs, who had surgeries for a hernia and on his shoulder this offseason, be recovered? Will second-round pick Terrence Wheatley and/or fourth-round pick Jonathan Wilhite emerge as a regular contributor on defense? Will special assistant/secondary coach Dom Capers, in his first year with the club, have a major impact?|
|INSTANT ANALYSIS||Cornerback figures to draw some of the most attention in training camp because of the turnover at the position, with Asante Samuel (Eagles) and Randall Gay (Saints) departing in free agency. The loss of safety Eugene Wilson (Buccaneers), who could drop down and play in the slot, should also be factored into the equation – although Wilson had dipped low on the depth chart by the end of last season (with Brandon Meriweather overtaking him, and offering similar flexibility). It will be interesting to see who is at the position on the opening of camp, and the projection here is that Bryant is likely to be lining up at Samuel’s old spot. If Hobbs is not yet fully cleared to practice medically, then Webster would be the choice on the opposite side. Mike Richardson (2nd year), Lewis Sanders (9th year), Antwain Spann (3rd year), Terrence Wheatley (rookie, 2nd round) and Jonathan Wilhite (rookie, 4th round) round out the competition.|
|FUTURE||Hobbs is signed through 2009, while Bryant, Webster and Sanders all inked one-year deals in the offseason. Wilhite signed a four-year deal last Friday, while Wheatley – as of late Sunday night – had yet to officially sign. Richardson, who had a competitive training camp in 2007 before landing on injured reserve after the third preseason game, is inked through 2010.|
For more on the cornerbacks, check out this survey gallery and vote for how you think the position might shake down during training camp and beyond.