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Secondary issues are a priority for Patriots

FOXBOROUGH -- Bill Belichick says the competition hasn't really started.

But when it does, expect the battles in the secondary to be among the most interesting wrangling at Patriots training camp.

The team concludes a three-day minicamp today at Gillette Stadium, and from early workouts it appears the typically entertaining wide receiver-defensive back challenges are likely to be more testy than normal.

The Patriots have seven cornerbacks and seven safeties on the roster, with a solid set of veterans and young players all vying for roster spots and precious playing time. New England had only eight defensive backs on the active roster for the Super Bowl.

With the bodies on hand now, the Patriots shouldn't have to fill in holes with wide receivers and linebackers as they did last season.

Belichick said the competition for spots on the team might not come from among the defensive backs, but between the secondary and different positions.

''It's not going to be between a corner and a safety, it will be between a safety and a linebacker, or a corner and a wide receiver, or a safety and a running back," Belichick said. ''Those numbers will be relative to the overall value those players have on the team. That will be up to them to create.

''Part of that will be ability to do certain things. Part of that will be versatility to do multiple things."

The latter doesn't apply to Duane Starks, who hasn't played a down of safety since high school. He is strictly a cornerback and will have to perform well at that position to get onto the field.

While it is widely assumed Starks will start at corner replacing Ty Law, who remains a free agent, he knows nothing will be handed to him.

Starks has seen few reps during workouts at the minicamp, behind Super Bowl starters Asante Samuel and Randall Gay, and Hank Poteat and Tyrone Poole. Rookie Ellis Hobbs was a fixture with the first unit in the defense's dime packages.

With the first exhibition game scheduled for August, the Patriots don't have a depth chart, but if they did, Starks might be running third team.

The same holds for Chad Scott, who signed with the Patriots as a free agent in April. Scott has started 88 of his 91 career games.

But it's only June.

''I'm not too anxious," said Starks, who joined the team via trade in March. ''I'm just playing my cards as they come right now.

''No one knows what's going to be the outcome of who's starting, who's not. Pretty much, you just play your cards right and good things will happen.

''The best guys play here and that's the way it should be everywhere. The best guys belong on the field. I've seen where a guy wasn't as good as the second guy, but he still played.

''Right now, it's important that each one of us watches a lot of film, understand what the coach is saying, and apply it on the field."

Starks said the Patriots' defense asks a bit more of corners than the units he played with at Baltimore and Arizona, so there is more to learn. By the time training camp rolls around, he expects to have a solid handle on his assignments.

With seven years in the league, including being a starter on a Super Bowl champion with the Ravens, one might think Starks would have some advantage over players such as Samuel and Gay, who have played but three seasons combined.

Not so, said the soon-to-be University of Miami graduate.

''I was once a rookie, and I beat a veteran guy out," Starks said. ''I wouldn't say the years gives me an advantage, they just give me a lot of wisdom and experience, that's about it."

Rodney Harrison, Mr. Wisdom and Experience in the Patriots' secondary, isn't worried about the competition.

One of the league's best safeties, Harrison has played in more games (139) than the remaining six Patriots' safeties combined (111).

His primary role at this point is an on-the-field coach for the likes of rookies James Sanders and Raymond Ventrone and second-year players Dexter Reid and Guss Scott, who has yet to play an NFL game. Eugene Wilson, who started opposite Harrison last year, enters his third season, and veteran Antuan Edwards signed with the team last week.

''You try to lead by example; help the guys out [on the field] and help them in the classroom," Harrison said. ''Fortunately for me, I have a bunch of rookies and young guys who are open to listening and want to learn.

''If they want to be around here, they're going to have to learn. It's tough, but it's their job now. No longer do they have to go to class or back and forth to school. This is their class. This is their job. If they want to be around they'll put the extra time in and learn the system."

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