Patriots finding safety in numbers

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / August 6, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — Four solid candidates, two starting spots.

It isn’t a bad problem to have.

Brandon Meriweather, James Sanders, Patrick Chung, and Brandon McGowan are battling each other for playing time at safety at Patriots training camp.

Meriweather is coming off his first Pro Bowl season, when he pulled in a career-best five interceptions, including two in London against the Buccaneers, and had 83 tackles. Sanders is a dependable veteran whose return late in the season helped steady a shaky unit. McGowan is capable of making the big hit and playing multiple roles. And Chung is the up-and-comer, who has garnered praise for his development during his first NFL offseason.

“We’re having fun,’’ Meriweather said. “Everybody [is] coming out to make each other better. We’re doing all the little things to help the team out. So you know, whenever you got competition in something it brings out the best in each other.’’

Sanders, now in his sixth season, agreed.

“We have a lot of guys that can play, and you go out there and we’re all competitors,’’ he said. “We all go out there each and every day, try to compete to the highest of our abilities and try to get better and improve each and every day in the secondary.’’

With Meriweather arguably the most complete of the four, it stands to reason he will be on field the most — last season, he played more than 1,000 defensive snaps, according to the research site, the only Patriots defender to log more than 900.

Sanders does not bring eye-opening stats to the table, but Meriweather, in particular, frequently touts him as the leader of the group. There was a visible difference in the secondary’s performance late in the season with Sanders versus when McGowan started 11 consecutive games after Sanders hurt his shoulder. In 2007 and ’08, Sanders started all 35 games (including playoffs) he appeared in, but last year Sanders started just six games.

Chung has made that critical step forward entering his second season, with a year of learning — from the playbook to being a professional athlete to working in the weight room — under his belt.

During training camp, there is often a rotation at safety, with the four mixing in and out. At times, however, Meriweather, Chung, and McGowan have been on the field with McGowan in the “big nickel’’ role closer to the line of scrimmage that Rodney Harrison made his own.

All any of the players can do, Sanders said, is make the most of their time, and coach Bill Belichick will decide the rest.

“We’re all competitors and all we ask for is the opportunity to go out there and compete and the opportunity to go out there and win jobs because nothing is given to you — you have to go out there and earn it, and that’s all we ask,’’ he said. “We all have different roles on the team as you can see from various team drills we’ve done and ultimately that should come down to [Belichick] on what roles he decides for each individual.’’

The unit has gotten a boost with the addition of coach Corwin Brown, who works primarily with the safeties. Brown brings the experience of having played eight years in the NFL, plus 10 years of coaching. His charges have described him as detail-oriented and a taskmaster.

“He’s great. He’s a good coach. He makes sure we’re doing the right thing. He’s hard on us, but I like it,’’ Chung said. “He makes sure we get the point and know what we’re doing and know what we’re communicating so everybody’s on the same page.’’

All that is left now is the question of leadership. Sanders’s way is to lead by example, not to be vocal, something Meriweather has no problems with.

“What’s the definition of a leader?’’ Meriweather asked a reporter, who replied someone who takes charge and whom others follow. “I don’t know, I think James Sanders is a leader and he don’t say nothing. So just because you take charge that makes you a leader? Or that just makes you somebody who talks a lot?

“Personally I think a leader is somebody who goes out, don’t really say much, but does everything he’s supposed to, steps up when he’s supposed to, takes charge by his action, not by what he says. So [by] my definition of a leader, I think everyone on our team is a leader.’’

Meriweather, however, is the vocal sort, and his voice, which rises a bit when he gets excited — can usually be heard at the end of a successful play or unsuccessful one, giving props to teammates who have done well or imploring them to focus.

Four different candidates, two spots, but many opportunities to make an impact.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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