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Full speed ahead for 4th-rounder Sanders

FOXBOROUGH -- James Sanders wasn't sure if he wanted in or out.

Two months after his 21st birthday, the junior safety at Fresno State decided to leave school early to give the NFL a try.

A week later, he concluded a college degree would be the best thing for him.

Soon after, the NCAA having yet to rule on whether he would be eligible for another college season, Sanders chose to keep his name among NFL Draft hopefuls.

Yesterday, the Patriots made Sanders the 133d player selected.

"I did a little back-and-forth," Sanders said. "But once I made a decision [to leave school], it was a little too late to go back on that decision and I realized that I needed to go ahead and go forward with the decision and just strive toward the future."

Sanders was the first Bulldog to leave early for the draft since quarterback Trent Dilfer in 1994.

In all, the two-time defending Super Bowl champions drafted seven players with their Day 2 additions of Sanders, linebacker Ryan Claridge of UNLV, quarterback Matt Cassel of Southern California, and tight end Andy Stokes of William Penn.

Stokes, this year's "Mr. Irrelevant" as the final pick of the draft (No. 255 overall), is only the fourth player from William Penn to be drafted by an NFL team. Patriots coach Bill Belichick described him as the "all-time small-school pick."

After the first three rounds Saturday, Belichick said he didn't plan to use all seven picks the Patriots held yesterday, and he made good on that, making three trades during the afternoon session.

The end result of the weekend maneuvering was four players picked yesterday, and the addition of four picks in 2006 -- a third-rounder, two fourth-rounders, and a fifth-rounder.

"Most of those picks were up one round from the one we traded for them, so relatively speaking there'll be some value there next year," Belichick said. "I feel like we came out of the draft with a good, solid group of players and at the same time strengthened ourselves going forward."

Sanders and Claridge are the second-day draftees most likely to make the squad.

Not a burner (barely under 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash), Sanders (5 feet 10 1/2 inches, 205 pounds) is considered a solid cover man and a big-time hitter, with a penchant for big plays. He had three blocked kicks in his three seasons as a starter at strong safety, and was touted by Fresno State coaches as the program's all-time best defensive back.

The Patriots have one of the game's top strong safeties in Rodney Harrison, and a solid free safety in Eugene Wilson, who started all but two games in his two seasons.

"[Harrison] is probably the best safety in the game right now, and I'm just glad that I am going to be able to learn from a guy like that so he can mentor me in his years left in the league and hopefully teach me what he knows about the game," Sanders said.

The Patriots took Claridge in the fifth round with the 170th pick. He played two seasons as an outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense, and two seasons in a 3-4, with 70 percent of his play on the inside. Claridge said he has no preference.

"I'm just showing up. If they want me to flip pancakes, I'll flip pancakes," Claridge said. "I just like to play football, that's the bottom line.

"If someone says, `You need to play outside,' I will play outside. If someone says, `You need to play inside,' I will play inside. It doesn't matter, I just want to play."

Claridge missed the entire 2002 season with a sports hernia injury, and he missed the 2004 season finale because of shoulder surgery to repair ligament damage.

Claridge wasn't fully recovered by the Scouting Combine, and he didn't work out there, but he said he is now healthy.

Under UNLV coach John Robinson, Claridge was used in ways similar to how Robinson employed Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest at Southern California.

"We see him more as an inside linebacker, but he does have some versatility outside," Belichick said. "He's a good, productive football player.

"He's a guy that blitzed quite a bit, was in coverage from his inside linebacker position, and he also got out on the edge and rushed some as a defensive end.

"For a player coming in in his situation, to have some versatility to do different things, and possibly be able to handle a role in different spots, certainly adds to his value and potential to help the football team."

The rookies are scheduled to arrive Thursday, and will go through an orientation and walk-through in preparation for a three-day minicamp next weekend.

Sanders will make the cross-country trek with Fresno State teammate Logan Mankins, the Patriots' first-round selection. Sanders and Mankins played under Pat Hill at Fresno State, a former assistant under Belichick with the Cleveland Browns.

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