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Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Spotlighting positional versatility

By Field Yates

Versatility has long been a hallmark of the Patriots under coach Bill Belichick, with players being called upon to fill multiple roles and play multiple positions. That has once again been the case in 2012, with a number of players shifting from one spot to another and performing capably.

Here's an overview of some of those versatile players (listed alphabetically), and the roles they have filled in 2012.

Offensive lineman Marcus Cannon. It's not uncommon to see offensive linemen moved around to different spots, and Cannon has been called upon to fill three roles: right tackle, guard, and most recently at tight end in the team's Week 8 win.

Offensive guard Dan Connolly. It's not a regular occurrence, but Connolly has been used in spot-duty as a fullback. Without a true fullback on the roster, the sturdy lineman gives the Patriots a lead blocker when needed.

Defensive end Jermaine Cunningham. Cunningham has had a resurgent season after a quiet 2011, and has been an effective edge rusher for the team. On top of that, he's also been used in a reduced alignment as a defensive tackle in sub-defense situations, giving the Patriots something of a "NASCAR" look along the defensive line, predicated upon speed and quickness.

Tight end Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez has been limited because of an ankle injury in 2012, but when he's been on the field, he's been used all over the formation: from the backfield, on the end of the line, split out as a receiver and more. He's an offensive weapon, and among the most unique talents on the team.

Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. The third-year tight end might be better classified as an H-Back at this point, as he has routinely lined up as a lead blocker in the backfield in recent weeks. His build is comparable to that of a fullback, and he provides a receiving threat to throw to on play-action passes.

Cornerback Devin McCourty. Recent injuries to Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory have left the Patriots thin at safety, which led to McCourty transitioning to the spot he played at times in 2011. From this vantage point, he's excelled at keeping the play in front of him in two games at safety and provides a dependable staple to the back end of the defense.

Offensive lineman Nick McDonald. Coming out of training camp, we sensed McDonald would have a jack-of-all-trades role with his unique ability to play all five line spots. He not only played the majority of snaps in place of right guard Dan Connolly in Week 7 (after Connolly left the game due to illness), but also as an extra lineman in heavy sets.

Defensive end Rob Ninkovich. As Belichick has pointed out, Ninkovich is an "end-of-the-line" player, capable to both stand up as an outside 'backer and work from a three-point stance at end. The Patriots haven't played a lot of 3-4 fronts, but Ninkovich has been used as a stand-up player in many of the instances that they have.