By Bruce Allen, Patriots Daily Staff
Between Rodney Harrison and Lawyer Milloy, the Patriots had an intimidating, hard-hitting safety patrolling the secondary and creeping up to the line of scrimmage to help out on the run during every season from 1996 to 2008. Last season, Brandon Meriweather was selected to the Pro Bowl at safety, but is not the hard-hitting type in the style of Milloy and Harrison. Could 2009 top pick Patrick Chung develop into that strong safety to carry on the tradition of the hard-hitters? It’s one of many things to watch for in this safety group in 2010.
Here are the safeties on the roster as of today, listed in my depth chart order:
Meriweather continued his improvement as a player in his third NFL season and was rewarded by getting to play in the Pro Bowl for the first time. However, Meriweather is still a frequent target of criticism by the media and some fans for not being in great position at all times, making risky gambles, and unsure tackling skills. Given how much improvement he can still make, it’s noteworthy that he still made that Pro Bowl. Meriweather is being counted on as one of the young leaders on the defense, along with linebacker Jerod Mayo, but his maturity level has been questioned at times by those observing him in the locker room. He needs to continue to make progress in all aspect of the game to validate that Pro Bowl selection.
Sanders lost his starting job to Brandon McGowan early last season, but by the time December had rolled around #36 was back in the starting lineup, providing the solid and steady presence and play that he has become known for during his time in New England. Sanders’ starting role is likely to be challenged once again, not only by McGowan but by Pat Chung as well. Sanders is best as a Meriweather-type centerfield free safety rather than being up closer to the line of scrimmage. Sanders has been praised by the coaching staff for his intelligence and knowledge of the defense. He’s a valuable piece to have around, and whatever his role, you can feel confident that he’ll be ready to go.
The 2009 second round pick has gotten a lot of attention this offseason for his work both in the weight room and on the field. He’s been spoken of as another potential leader on defense, and signs seem to point to him taking a big leap forward in playing time this season. He very well could leapfrog Sanders on this depth chart, and find himself starting at strong safety for New England. He’s a hard hitter, not afraid of taking on ball carriers, but also not uncomfortable in pass coverage. His progress will be watched very closely in camp and during the early part of the season.
The former Chicago Bear and University of Maine product was one of the more pleasant surprises of 2009 for the Patriots. His stepped into the starting lineup and provided a physical presence that the secondary sorely needed. He also established himself as something of a tight end stopper, playing tough defense on Tony Gonzalez, Dallas Clark and others. McGowan was at times overaggressive as well, costing the Patriots yards, and this ultimately resulted in the steadier Sanders being put back into the starting role.
Lockett was a late addition to the Patriots last season, being claimed and awarded off waivers from the Cleveland Browns just prior to the season opener. He was a special teams player for the Patriots until he was placed on IR on December 9th. Lockett has good size (6-1, 220), but it remains to be seen whether he is more than just a ST player.
Brown was one of most sought after undrafted free agents following the NFL draft, a result of a pretty good career under new Patriots defensive assistant Corwin Brown at Notre Dame. Brown has outstanding athletic skills, and is described as a coach’s dream. He faces an uphill battle to win a roster spot just as a safety, but if he can show something on special teams he might be worth keeping around. If he isn’t on the final 53-man roster, he seems like a very likely candidate for the practice squad.
Seems to be a clone of his older brother Ray. Ventrone has the same hard-nosed style that endeared Ray to the Patriots coaching staff and kept him here for three seasons before moving onto the Browns last season. Ross also seems to face long odds, but might be another practice squad candidate.
These top four safeties might be as good top-to-bottom as any safety group in the NFL. They’re going to play a big role in this team’s success in 2010. If Chung can have a breakthrough year and emerge as that Harrison/Milloy type of presence, then this group can be very, very good for some time to come. Also keep an eye on Brown in the preseason to see if he is able to make a name for himself during those games.