Every year, it seems, the Patriots make an unexpected cut when it's time to trim rosters to 53 players. This year's was veteran cornerback Fernando Bryant.
The 10-year pro, who signed a one-year contract as a free agent in March, had gone wire to wire as a starter throughout training camp. He appeared to be the answer to one of the pressing questions facing the Patriots when they reported for training camp July 24: Who replaces Asante Samuel?
Bryant and fourth-year veteran Ellis Hobbs projected as the 1-2 punch at corner, but now it's Hobbs, rookies Terrence Wheatley (second round) and Jonathan Wilhite (fourth round), and nine-year veteran Lewis Sanders at the position. If the season were to start tomorrow, the speedy, confident Wheatley likely would get the starting nod opposite Hobbs.
At this point, it's a numbers-thin group, and it just might be the catalyst that leads to a reunion between the Patriots and Ty Law, arguably the top veteran free agent on the market.
The 34-year-old Law wants to play for the Patriots, and he has remained in touch with coach Bill Belichick throughout the offseason. Law, who previously visited with the Jets and spoke with the cornerback-needy Browns, predicted earlier this month he'd be with an NFL club on the opening weekend of the season.
At issue, it seems, is hammering out a contract that would work for both parties.
Law, who has fielded telephone calls from a few former Patriots teammates urging him to return, continued to weigh his options as of last night, and an agreement with an NFL club was not imminent. In previous conversations, he seemed especially motivated to prove he still can play at a high level after two largely unfulfilling years in Kansas City. Once again, he spent much of his offseason training with noted speed coach Bob Kersee.
Law won't have to do much to convince Belichick, however. Asked in March about Law, Belichick said, "I'm sure he'll play in the league this year. I don't have any doubt about that."
As for where it went wrong for the likable Bryant, a play from Thursday night's exhibition finale might have been the final straw, when Giants tight end Darcy Johnson plowed him 8 yards down the field to finish a 26-yard touchdown catch-and-run on New York's first drive.
Bryant didn't appear to put much effort into the tackle, and for a veteran defense that prides itself on a physical edge, it wasn't the type of play - preseason or not - that would have gone over well in the locker room.
On the flip side, Bryant had battled through a few injury scares in camp, and didn't miss much practice time. In one passing drill, he hurt his knee in a collision but was back on the field the next practice. Later in camp, he had some pain in his surgically repaired shoulder while defending a play in red-zone drills, but he fought through it and suited up for the next exhibition game.
Bryant's willingness to play through those ailments didn't reflect a player who was afraid to grind through tough times.
And while he might not be physical enough to necessarily be relied upon in run support, he still appeared to have some cover skills that could be of help to a team looking to replace Samuel's 16 regular-season interceptions over the last two seasons. Bryant did get his hands on a lot of footballs in training camp, so perhaps the lesson is this: What is seen on the practice field doesn't always transfer to the field in a game.
In terms of the Patriots' overall outlook at cornerback, one thing to keep in mind is that some of the team's safeties often drop down to play corner in five- and six-defensive back packages. Both Rodney Harrison and John Lynch have worked in that role during the preseason, which is important to factor in when considering the depth at the position.
Still, it looks as if the Patriots struck out on two of their top free agent signings this year, cornerbacks Bryant and Jason Webster. In addition, 2007 sixth-round pick Mike Richardson, another corner, was cut yesterday.
If the last few years at this time are to be used as a road map, then expect some more changes on the roster in the coming days. Cornerback, given the surprising release of Bryant, seemingly would be high on the priority list.