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Names on the back of the jersey

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  August 29, 2011 11:57 AM

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Taking a bit of a different approach to the long-running yet sporadic First and 10 feature around here today. Rather than chime in on scattered thoughts from the most recent Patriots game -- Thursday's 34-10 preseason loss to the Lions that you'll have long since forgotten about once to meaningful games begin -- let's instead take a look at 10 individual players, some of whom are cornerstones, some of whom will be nervous as tomorrow's 4 p.m. roster-shearing to 80 looms, and some of whom are already gone . . .

James Sanders: Actually, might as well start with the news of the day rather than the news of Saturday, since the decision to release the seventh-year safety came as a relative surprise based on the perceived lack of depth at the position. Sanders, who started 50 of his 84 regular-season games as a Patriot, was an adequate player here, lauded for his intelligence, communication skills, and football acumen, a player who long ago won his coach's appreciation. Unfortunately, Sanders may have been brilliant at diagnosing a play when the opposing offense lined up, but he wasn't quick enough to get himself into position to make the play. It's always disappointing to see someone who got the most out of his ability -- physically and mentally -- depart. But there comes a point when the mental acuity can't overcome the physical shortcomings, and Sanders has probably crossed that threshold. His professionalism will be missed, but his performance should be replaced.

Tom Brady: If the Giants' pass rush Thursday night is as effective and ferocious as Detroit's Saturday, the Patriots quarterback should be in his usual position on the sideline -- that is, standing next to Chad Ochocinco and gesturing toward the field while the ex-Bengal stares saucer-eyed, as if he's suddenly realized his former team's playbook was really a pamphlet. Brady was a bit scatter-armed by his standards Saturday, but whatever rust he may to shake off is of little relevance compared to the risk of him getting injured in a preseason game against a defense desperate for a couple of pelts to start the season right.

Brandon Tate: I hope he sticks. I don't know how he does, unless Wes Welker's injury is more serious than it appears, but I hope there's a spot on the roster for him. The Patriots have a relatively deep crew at receiver, but he's the only one of the crew who can consistently get deep. He seems to have been surpassed by second-year receiver Taylor Price, and his value as a kick returner has been diminished by the rule change, but I think it's often overlooked that last year was essentially his rookie season. He missed the last eight games of his senior season at North Carolina with a knee injury, then was limited to two games during his first season with the Patriots before playing all 16 games a season ago, with 24 catches for 432 yards (18 yards per catch). He may not have Brady's trust as a route-runner yet, but he has promise; give him time to learn. Let's not discard him in the Bethel Johnson/Chad Jackson discard pile just yet.

Ras-I Dowling: Pure conjecture here -- hey, now there's a surprise -- but is it possible that the rookie second-round pick has shown Belichick and Matt Patricia enough during his limited practice time that he might get a look at safety rather than cornerback to start the season? Given the Patriots' apparent lack of depth at safety before Sanders was let go, there has to be something happening at the position that remains a mystery today, whether that's the emergence of Josh Barrett or Sergio Brown or the impending signing of someone such as Darren Sharper. I refuse to believe it has anything to do with today's signing of the Obligatory Ventrone Brother.

Matt Light: A silly thought considering that first-round pick Nate Solder is a work-in-progress who appears to lack the strength and nuance required to protect Tom Brady's blind side at this point, but a silly thought I'm afraid I'll keep coming back to if Dan Connolly's injury is serious: Is there any chance Light could move to right guard? It's probably a lot to ask in his 11th NFL season, but I seem to remember a few people projecting him as a guard when the Patriots drafted him (some dismissively), and in his 2001 Pro Football Weekly Draft Guide, the late, great Joel Buchsbaum noted of the Purdue product: Might be better at guard or right tackle at the next level. There was no need for him to begin his career anywhere but left tackle, and he's been a damn good one. But he may be able to prolong that career by moving to guard at some point.

Brandon Meriweather: Considering he's blown coverages that led directly to big plays in each of the past two preseason games, I have my doubts that he's going to be any more dependable in his fifth professional season than he was in his first four. He's fast, he can hit, and yet neither is really a strength since he often overruns plays and goes for the kill at the expense of actually bringing down the ball carrier. If Belichick truly were an evil genius, he'd have long ago found a way to meld Sanders's smarts with Meriweather's raw skills and create the next Rodney Harrison.

Rob Gronkowski: Two things heard about Gronk during camp this year: He knows the playbook much better than he did a season ago. And: He's been absolutely unstoppable in practice. The Patriots' offense is so versatile that it's tough to project big numbers for anyone in the passing game, but I'll be betting on my fantasy football draft day that he's a top-five tight end this year. Possibly top-three.

Jonathan Wilhite: The fourth-year defensive back is among those let go by the Patriots today, and while I try not to say good riddance to someone who just lost their job, the truth is I can't remember Wilhite making any single positive play during his time here that stood out. Research revealed this -- an interception of Peyton Manning during the Patriots' 35-34 loss to the Colts in 2009. It's one of his three career picks, and undoubtedly the most notable considering the other two came against JaMarcus Russell and Ryan Fitzpatrick. (Come to think of it, the highlights of both Wilhite and Sanders's career here came with picks of Peyton Manning. Wouldn't have guessed that.)

BenJarvus Green-Ellis: He's easy to root for, a 2008 rookie free-agent afterthought who three years later became the Patriots' first 1,000-yard rusher since 2004. Other positives: He protects the ball, he gains every inch possible in traffic, and he's not named Laurence Maroney. Green-Ellis is reminiscent of another Patriots running back of relatively recent vintage, Antowain Smith, who earned two Super Bowl rings as a Patriot one tough yard at a time. But he also was just flawed enough that there was always the temptation to go for an upgrade at the position, and that's the same feeling I have about Ellis, whose lack of speed in the open field can be a source of frustration. If Stevan Ridley or -- and this is a longer shot given the preseason hamstring injury that set him back -- Shane Vereen can prove worthy of taking some carries from Green-Ellis on first and second down, the Patriots will be a better team for it.

Devin McCourty: It was a bit jarring to see him struggle against the Lions Saturday given that it was the scene of perhaps his best game of his superb rookie season last year. It's one thing to struggle covering Calvin Johnson -- even Mike Haynes in his prime might find the Lions star a difficult matchup -- but McCourty also got beat by Nate Burleson on a couple of occasions. If you're a frequent sports radio caller, feel free to worry that he's headed for a sophomore slump and possibly may even turn into the second coming of Chris Canty if that gets you a few more seconds of airtime. If you're a fan who maintains enough common sense and perspective to realize that drawing worrisome conclusions from this Week 3 thumping is akin to fretting last year about the preseason Week 3 loss to the Rams, you're probably not sweating McCourty's performance and realize that, yes, he will remember to turn his head around when the ball is in the air once the regular-season begins.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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