FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- What looked like one of the deepest positions on the New England Patriots roster at the end of the 2010 season is now comprised of one highly touted draft choice and a bunch of players who entered the NFL as rookie free agents. How does that happen?
The question comes to mind when considering what life might be like for the Patriots if safety Patrick Chung doesn't suit up for Sunday night's rivalry road game against the New York Jets. Chung, the group's headliner who is tied for the team lead with 58 tackles, is questionable with a right foot injury.
Friday was considered a key day to gauge Chung's availability as he returned for limited practice work after missing practices Wednesday and Thursday. If he is held out Sunday
"We have a couple of different combinations and we'll just keep working it here," coach Bill Belichick said, noting Friday was a time to "fine-tune" things at safety. "Whether he does or doesn't fit into the picture, I don't know. We have guys on the practice squad that we could bring up too. We have some options, we'll just try to look at the situation and make the best choices we can for our team."
That's the Belichick trademark: "whatever is best for the team." It would be interesting to hear him spin the safety situation as positive, because a Chung-less scenario looks dire, even against a Jets attack that doesn't plan to stray far from its ground-and-pound approach against the NFL's 32nd-ranked pass defense.
Consider that at the end of last season, the Patriots were stocked with Chung, Brandon Meriweather, James Sanders, Jarrad Page, Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett, Bret Lockett and Ross Ventrone. It might not have been an all-star cast, but between experience and skill, it was certainly passable.
Now consider what things might look like if Chung doesn't play. The top three players on the depth chart Sunday night will probably be Brown, Jets castoff James Ihedigbo and rookie free agent Sterling Moore, who was promoted from the practice squad Wednesday.
Maybe it will all work out, as it did in 2003 when Belichick cut Lawyer Milloy before the season opener without a surefire backup on the roster. Then-rookie Eugene Wilson, a cornerback-turned-safety drafted in the second round, ended up being the solution. Or maybe Belichick has another Troy Brown-like trick up his hoodie sleeve, like the time Brown went from receiver to slot corner when a run of injuries struck the secondary in 2004.
In the past, Belichick has been able to plug in parts and the defense hasn't missed a beat -- who could forget Earthwind Moreland and Hank Poteat? -- but one wonders if this time the result will be different, especially considering how the NFL has trended to more of a passing league.
The present picture began to come into focus after the Patriots cut Sanders and Meriweather at the end of training camp. Neither has produced big with their new team -- Sanders in Atlanta, Meriweather in Chicago -- but they are at least providing what the Patriots currently lack: veteran depth.
Meanwhile, the Patriots thought enough of Page, whom they had acquired for a seventh-round draft pick last year, to tender him at the second-round level as a restricted free agent after 2010. Yet when Page was granted unrestricted free agency in the new collective bargaining agreement, the sides couldn't come to an agreement and Page inked a modest one-year deal with Philadelphia. While he has been a disappointment with the Eagles, benched after starting five games, it doesn't seem a stretch to say his presence in New England would be welcome at this point.
The Patriots also have been hit by injuries at safety. They had high hopes for Barrett, whom they had claimed on waivers from the Broncos last year, but that was a risky gamble to take given Barrett's recent injury history. After missing 2010 with a shoulder injury, Barrett battled through a hamstring injury in 2011 training camp, and later hurt his thumb before he was placed on season-ending injured reserve this week after hurting his calf. Lockett was also lost for the year in training camp (abdomen/groin).
As for Brown, he seems to have taken a step backward. In September, Belichick said he "has done nothing but improve in the year and a half that he's been here," but it's been a struggle for the former rookie free agent from Notre Dame as he has been flagged for two of the most costly pass interference penalties this season (versus the Bills and Giants). After averaging about 50 snaps per game over the first four contests of the year, he's averaged five over the past four games.
For his part, Brown said his confidence hasn't wavered, so if he's thrust back into the action Sunday night he has prepared for the moment just as he would in any week.
"In every game, opportunity will always be put in front of you, so you have to capitalize on them," he said. "Sometimes they go bad, sometimes they go good. You just have to make sure it's more good than bad."
The Patriots' pass defense has been more of the latter this season. Now, when considering a safety corps without Chung, could it get worse?
The Patriots hope they don't have to find out.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.