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Patriots' Wilson is in rookie's corner

FOXBOROUGH -- A touted rookie defensive back is forced to switch positions because the Patriots and a veteran member of the secondary are at a contract impasse. It's an intriguing story line but not a novel one in New England.

Now it applies to first-round pick Brandon Meriweather, whom most projected as a safety coming out of the University of Miami but the Patriots have placed at cornerback to help fill the absence of AWOL corner Asante Samuel.

In 2003, it applied to Eugene Wilson, a cornerback prospect who shifted to safety after things went south between the Patriots and Lawyer Milloy. That was before Milloy became a salary-cap casualty and suited up for the Buffalo Bills instead of the Patriots when the teams met in their season opener.

After the opener, Wilson, who had never played safety, was told he would be starting there with only a week's preparation. That switch worked out well, as Wilson had a smoother transition to free safety than anyone could have imagined, and ended up being the starter on a Super Bowl champion.

How Meriweather's move will turn out is anyone's guess, but he has two advantages Wilson didn't. First, Meriweather isn't being converted to corner, he's becoming better acquainted with it. Second, he has an entire training camp to do so.

Meriweather, who saw significant time at left cornerback in the Patriots' 13-10 exhibition loss to Tampa Bay last Friday, finishing with three tackles, got his start in college as a corner. The dreadlocked defensive back's first college start came at nickel back against West Virginia, and during his career, he frequently played the slot in passing situations, even as a safety. He also made three starts at cornerback last year for the Hurricanes and was assigned to cover Calvin Johnson when Miami played Georgia Tech. Johnson, the future No. 2 overall pick, had five catches for 68 yards and a touchdown.

"I also played the same positions at Miami," said Meriweather, who has been used as a slot corner in nickel and dime packages in practice and has also had repetitions at left cornerback. "It helps a lot with the focus part. I still have to focus more than what I had to do in college, but I think it helps a little bit more because I have played it before."

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees said Meriweather's previous experience makes him a good fit for the Patriots' system.

"He hasn't always been a safety. He was a corner. That's one of the reasons," said Pees. "When you play a guy at 'star,' our nickel back position, that's really a corner-type guy. That's always been Hank Poteat, it's been Ray Mickens, it's been Randall Gay, all those guys that are kind of corner types, but at the same time they can play some safety. That's where we're really looking at [Meriweather] first. We're hoping he can be a corner. We're trying him a little bit everywhere to really see where his best fit is going to be. Now is the time to do that, not when the season starts."

Wilson didn't have that option. After the Patriots got hammered, 31-0, in the '03 opener, the coaching staff told him he'd be moving to safety.

"Yeah, when they first came to me, I thought it was a joke," said Wilson. "It's a lot better for you to be able to practice something before being told about it the week before, but sometimes you've just got to make adjustments and get done what needs to get done."

Wilson has practiced at safety and corner in recent years and took repetitions there in training camp last year, but Pees said earlier this week the team plans to have him focus solely on safety this season. Wilson said he believes moving from safety to corner is easier than from corner to safety.

"When you're out at safety, you're like a linebacker, you're quarterbacking the defense, giving calls and checks," said Wilson. "At corner, you're just receiving the call from the safety and not having to make checks and you can just zone in and play your guy or your coverage."

Pees said at corner the challenge is more physical than mental.

"I don't mean the demand or the punishment of taking a hit," he said. "It's that you're going to be locked on one on one with a really good wide receiver at some point in time and sometimes we can help you, sometimes we can't."

Meriweather said regardless where the Patriots put him, he has a lot to work on. He said he needs to improve his grasp of the playbook, his practice habits, his preparation. Everything.

"Right now I'm just doing what the coaches ask me to," Meriweather said. "I'm really not looking at the position or what to play and when to play it and how to play it. I'm just really trying to focus on wherever my coaches put me. I'm going to try to perform my best at that position."

Wilson, who said he's counseled Meriweather when the opportunity has arisen, said that in his fifth season, he views himself as a safety. The transformation is complete.

"I just look at it like it was something they asked me to do and I was able to do it," said Wilson. "I didn't know people had tried it and it had been a disaster. I do what I can to help the team, and in that instance, it did help the team and I was very happy to do that."

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at