|Switched to safety, Brandon Meriweather was all over the field, making nine tackles. (BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF)|
For safety's sake, rookie makes move
FOXBOROUGH - The domino effect of Asante Samuel's return to the Patriots was evident in the team's preseason finale last night against the Giants.
No, Samuel didn't suit up, as he continues to work his way into football shape. But with Samuel back, it allowed the Patriots to make another important move - switching first-round draft choice Brandon Meriweather from cornerback to safety.
Meriweather started at safety in a game played mostly by second-stringers. He totaled nine tackles (6 solo, 3 assisted), tying for second on the team, while being credited with one pass defended.
The 5-foot-11-inch, 200-pound Meriweather looked like a natural, which was to be expected since that is where he spent most of his career at the University of Miami. Of his 31 collegiate starts, 27 came at safety.
"It felt good being back there, able to see everything, roam, and play how I played in college," he said. "It's a spot I have fun playing."
But when Meriweather first arrived at training camp - a day late after his representatives and the team couldn't hammer out an agreement on time - the coaching staff decided to work him at corner. The need was greater there, as veteran Chad Scott, a projected starter, had just been placed on injured reserve and Samuel was holding out as the team's franchise player.
Meriweather got most of his initial work on the left side behind Randall Gay. He was also immediately inserted into nickel packages as the slot corner.
"When I came here and got put at corner, it was kind of a mind shocker," he said.
As it turns out, the Patriots probably need Meriweather more at safety now.
There is some concern whether starter Eugene Wilson, who played in only four games in an injury-shortened 2006 season, will be ready for the Sept. 9 opener against the Jets after appearing to pull up in last Friday's exhibition game against the Panthers. Wilson was held out of practices this week.
If Wilson can't go, the Patriots must decide whom to start next to Rodney Harrison, assuming Harrison himself is OK, as he missed Tuesday's practice and did not even suit up last night.
Third-year man James Sanders is one option, and coach Bill Belichick recently lauded the progress he's made. At 5-10, 210 pounds, Sanders entered the NFL as more of an in-the-box safety, but he's since improved his range. Still, the question would be if a Sanders-Harrison pairing gives the team enough range.
That wouldn't be a problem with Meriweather, who looks to be the fastest player of the safety group and was darting from sideline to sideline last night (he added one special teams tackle).
Other possibilities include second-year man Willie Andrews or sixth-year man Mel Mitchell. It's hard to imagine fourth-year player Rashad Baker, who has been sidelined by an undisclosed injury (he was recently spotted with a cast on his arm), would be ready. Baker, in fact, might not even make the team.
Meanwhile, at cornerback, Ellis Hobbs and Gay have gone wire to wire as the starters this preseason. Samuel will eventually challenge Gay on the left side, forming a solid top three at the position.
So in the short term, Meriweather appears to be in position to make more of a difference at safety, which is hard to believe considering the makeup of the Patriots' defensive backfield when he first arrived. Either spot would be fine with him.
"My preference is to get on the field," Meriweather said. "I prefer to learn my playbook and learn any position the coaches want to put me at, rather than say, 'I want to just play safety.' "
Belichick was noncommittal when asked if the team would work Meriweather more at safety, but acknowledged there were some positive signs last night.
"I thought there were some good things," Belichick said. "There were a couple of plays that looked like he might have been a little out of position on, but I think that's true of everybody."
Meriweather also put a good hit on Giants running back Brandon Jacobs near the goal line. In the fourth quarter, he briefly remained on the ground after the Giants scored on a 1-yard run by Ryan Grant. A member of the Patriots' training staff came onto the field, but Meriweather walked off under his own power.
"I ran into the pile and fell down, and the ref thought I was hurt," he said. "I was trying to tell them 'no' but they waved me off anyway. It wasn't that serious."
Meriweather, who felt good about going wire to wire last night, is now looking forward to his first regular-season action. He knows there will be nerves, and he is OK with that.
"Talking to some veteran players, [they say] those nerves will never go away," he said. "That's something that is going to be with me the rest of my life when I'm playing football. As a wise man told me, those nerves are what make you play better."
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.