The headline, of course, is that 2007 first round pick Brandon Meriweather has been cut. Not benched, not traded. Cut. Meriweather's release shows that the Patriots are basically blowing up the safety position and trying to find something that works. The Patriots have now cycled through a bunch of players at the safety slots the last couple of years--Meriweather, James Sanders, Patrick Chung, Jarrad Page, Bret Lockett, Josh Barrett, Brandon McGowan, Sergio Brown, Buddy Farnham, the brothers Ventrone, and perhaps a few more I've forgotten about.
Today, only Chung, Barrett, and Brown remain from that group and they are joined now by James Ihedigbo.
As dramatic as it seems, however, Meriweather's release is just the latest in a long series of moves that Patriots have taken to address what is clearly still an area of concern and has been for some time.
It started at least as far back as the end of the 2009 season when New England, after having Josh Boyer as coach of all the defensive backs, hired Corwin Brown to tutor the safeties. This was an indication that the position required a coach dedicated solely to safeties. Brown had all the right credentials--he had played and coached in the league, he was a defensive coordinator under Charlie Weis at Notre Dame, and he seemed like a good hire. But something didn't click and New England's safety play still left something to be desired. Brown was let go after only one season (and his recent legal troubles suggest, sadly, that there was more to the story than we knew at the time). To replace him, the Pats moved Matt Patricia from linebacker coach, a post he had held since 2006, to safeties coach. This was an indication of just how seriously they saw the problem. Patricia is perhaps the team's de facto defensive coordinator, a man entrusted with lots of responsibilities, a very bright young coaching mind who might be a head coach himself by now if the Josh McDaniels hire and fire hadn't cooled the enthusiasm around the league for young twigs off the Belichick tree. Moving him in to coach safeties suggested that this was a problem area they felt they had to address not by hiring an outsider like Corwin Brown (however well-credentialed) but by shifting a proven insider to handle the job.
The coaching shift was just one reflection of how seriously the Patriots considered the problem. They have used the pre-season to experiment with various combinations of safeties and found most of them wanting. Sanders, a vet and the hero of last year's win over the Colts, was let go. He seemed like a solid number 3 safety and a spot starter, but the Pats wanted something more, or something different. Page was allowed to get away as a free agent and McGowan and Lockett were shown the door as well. The Patriots tried to motivate their safeties by bringing in Darren Sharper and Dashon Goldson for a look. That didn't seem to produce the kind of improvement they were looking for either.
With today's roster cutdowns, the Patriots are left with only four safeties. It is always possible they are not yet set at this position. They might find someone on the waiver wire they want. There might be a veteran or two they could bring in. Maybe they cut Sanders and Meriweather in the same week because they already had the next move figured out. Goldson is off the market, but who knows if they worked out some sort of Junior Seau-like arrangement with Sharper, a 35 year old who--if not asked to play that many downs per week--might still have a lot to offer if he is used sparingly and judiciously.
Unless and until New England brings in someone new, their radical resetting of the safety position now looks like this: Patrick Chung is solid, versatile, talented, and a rising leader. He is athletic, he can play in coverage, he can tackle, he can drop down in the box, he can blitz. He seems on the verge of--if not stardom--at least a solid NFL career. In short, he is becoming the player Meriweather was expected to be but never became. The team is set at one position.
Beside him they have (for now) Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett, and James Ihedigbo. Brown seems promising. He's certainly gotten chances to play, last year and so far this year. He seems to be doing what the coaches want which is key. And he may end up being a very pleasant surprise this season. It's hard to know what the Patriots have in Barrett, who came over last year on waivers from Denver but went immediately to IR and hasn't played much this preseason. But there must have been a reason Belichick got him in the first place. And a reason why he's kept him over Sanders, McGowan, Meriweather, etc. In 2008, the Pats signed Tank Williams, a huge built-like-a-linebacker safety, as a hybrid 'backer/DB. Constant injuries kept that from working out. However, Barrett has a similar kind of build, and perhaps a similar ability to be a hybrid kind of player. Maybe, as Belichick has been thinking and redesigning his defensive personnel and his defensive scheme, Barrett is exactly the sort of break-the-mold safety he had in mind. As for Ihedigbo, how delicious would it be if, once again, the Jets seriously misjudged the talent on their own roster as they did last year when they let Danny Woodhead get away. Ihedigbo might be nothing more than a backup and a special teamer--but did any of us seriously think Woodhead would become anything more than that when we signed him last year? It's possible the Jets, caught up in all their bluster and their flash and dash and media circus atmosphere, blundered again in letting Ihedigbo go. It's also possible that he is another gem plucked from a division rival who fits in perfectly in a specific role with the Patriots, just as Woodhead did, not to mention Wes Welker and Sammy Morris (goodbye, Sammy, and good luck to you) who were unappreciated players plucked from the Dolphins.
What these four safeties also seem to have in common is a crucial trait : they seem coachable. They seem likely to grasp the scheme and the system and see not only their role but how their role relates to the entire defense. They may lack the talent to make huge, spectacular plays, but they may also have the discipline not to give up huge, spectacular plays the other way. In short, they seem the antithesis of the free-lancing, undisciplined Meriweather, who often was out of position and seemed not to know or care that he was out of position. Meriweather may not have been very coachable, and these four might be a step forward in that area. They also are young guys who, given some coaching by Patricia and Belichick, might be capable of doing something else Meriweather never seemed to do: improve. I'm not really sure if Meriweather ever became a better player than he was when he first arrived as a 2007 rookie. He gained experience to be sure, but was he better for having played so much? Did he ever really grow as a player, refine his talent, master his position, become a better player? Or did he remain what he always was--a gifted athlete capable of great things who never scratched the surface of the potential that led the Pats to draft him in the first round?
Today, the Patriots gave us their answers to those questions. He joins Laurence Maroney and Chad Jackson and Terrance Wheatley and the other early round draft picks who, for whatever reason, just couldn't get it done and will now have to see if someone else is willing to take a chance on a talented but erratic, undisciplined player. I'm betting he latches on somewhere else quickly. I'm also betting that whoever gets him will soon realize exactly why the Patriots cut him.
So, after the coaching changes, the roster changes, the cuts and moves, the Patriots seem to have one safety position set and the other very much up in the air but not without some hope. Is someone else coming? Is Sharper or another veteran on the way? Might there be a trade this week or early in the season? We don't know yet. But we do know that today's news that the Meriweather experiment is officially over signals a decision to move on to whatever comes next. Today's news is only the latest development in a long-running saga of New England trying to fix its play at the safety position. They may not be set, they may not be finished acquiring and tinkering and moving people around, but the Patriots are clearly unwilling to stand still and tolerate what wasn't working.
They've blown up the safety positions and started anew. In a month or six weeks or maybe sooner, we'll all know if this detonation was a destructive move or a constructive one. Until then, we can only wait, watch, and hope for the best from this 2011 safety reset.