It’s hard to make much of the 90 minutes of Patriots organized team activity on-field work we witnessed last Thursday, but based on the track record of head coach Bill Belichick and the ever-evolving nature of the NFL, it’s a safe bet that he’ll be calling upon some of his players to wear numerous hats throughout the upcoming season.
Versatility has long been a staple of the Belichick regime, and players such as Troy Brown, Mike Vrabel, Julian Edelman and Dan Klecko come to mind when discussing players who have aligned on both sides of the football for New England.
But versatility isn’t just defined by players who can line up on either side of the line of scrimmage; it also entails players who can contribute at multiple positions on the same side of the football, much like 2011 first-round pick Nate Solder did a season ago as he saw meaningful playing time as both a left and right tackle.
Keeping in mind that much can change between now and the start of the regular season, here’s a look at a sampling of the players who may be asked to serve in a number of different roles in 2012, and what it could mean for each:
DEVIN McCOURTY: CORNERBACK/SAFETY
After starring as a rookie in 2010, it seemed like McCourty was well on his way to becoming a fixture at cornerback for New England. He experienced a sophomore regression in production and also was shifted – at times – to safety. The move helped the Patriots’ secondary, and many have wondered whether McCourty would make a full-time transition to safety, or if perhaps he would settle back-in at cornerback. With the Patriots investing in Steve Gregory (free agent) and Tavon Wilson (2nd-round pick) this offseason, the need for McCourty to swap positions may not be as pressing. Moreover, he’s still just 24, and it’s evident that he has the skills to be a capable cornerback. Confidence can play a role in defensive backs’ ability to execute. A strong start to 2012 could lead to McCourty re-assuming his standout ways.
ROBERT GALLERY: TACKLE/GUARD
Mike Reiss has made multiple mentions of the potential lack of depth the Patriots have along the offensive line. With Matt Light retiring, Logan Mankins recovering from ACL surgery, and Brian Waters absent from last Thursday’s OTA, it would seem that there are openings on the line to be claimed with a strong offseason. Gallery, who has excelled more as a guard then tackle, could be a prime candidate to slide into one of the potentially available starting roles. Additionally, however, he could be called upon to be an invaluable reserve to three positions, as he projects as a player who can back up either guard spot and the right tackle position. It seems most likely that Gallery will work at guard, barring some sort of injury to a Patriots primary tackle. Should it become necessary, he could flank out one more position and see snaps as a tackle too.
AARON HERNANDEZ: TIGHT END/H-BACK
Hernandez is one of the most dynamic offensive players in all of football, with unique athleticism and ability to line up all over the formation. The Patriots picked up Daniel Fells this offseason, and it’s possible that he’ll be inserted into a second tight end role when the team needs a blocking boost. Hernandez’s snaps won't likely decrease, he just may be used in a different role, much like he was down the stretch in 2011. He showed effectiveness as a running back, is a proven receiver, and can contribute as a blocker as well. New offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels loves to get creative, and Hernandez seems like a player who will continue to blossom.
JULIAN EDELMAN: WIDE RECEIVER/CORNERBACK/RETURNER
Edelman has epitomized versatility since he was drafted in 2009, successfully transitioning from a college quarterback to an NFL wide receiver, defensive back and returner. With a healthy secondary, the need for Edelman on defense may be tempered, but with so many receivers on the roster, it’s unclear what type of offensive role he could take on. His three-phase contributions increase his value, and we may be able to find out much more about Edelman’s 2012 future when the team puts the pads on in training camp and we see what positions he works at. He is one of the players especially worth keeping an eye on throughout the rest of the offseason.
MARKELL CARTER: DEFENSIVE END/OUTSIDE LINEBACKER
Carter, a 2011 sixth-round pick out of Central Arkansas, makes this list for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the strong endorsement the Patriots made on his behalf by upping his practice squad pay last season. Additionally, he’s bulked up this offseason, which suggests he could take on a number of roles that he maybe could not have last season. Where Carter ends up on the field may be a byproduct of the defense that new defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and Belichick employ. He appears to have the frame to be an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, as well as a defensive end in a 4-3.