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A closer look at James Sanders

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The Patriots have never been shy about cutting ties with veterans, but Monday’s decision to release veteran safety James Sanders is one of the more surprising personnel moves New England has made over the last few years.

The 27-year-old Sanders, who was selected in the fourth round of the 2005 draft out of Fresno State, was one of the steadiest defensive backs in New England since he first arrived. At a position where the Patriots have sought stability since the retirement of Rodney Harrison, Sanders was a consistent and durable presence on the back line for New England: He played in 84 games with 49 starts over his first six NFL seasons (2005-10), totaling 300 tackles (217 solo), one sack and eight interceptions for 172 yards and two touchdowns.

[A] tough release there with James Sanders,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said on a Monday afternoon conference call. “James has been a really good guy to have on this team, a hard-working kid. He developed form the time he came through to us as a draft choice out of Fresno. He was a solid team player for us. It’s just part of the moves. We needed to release some people and he was a tough one.”

Going beyond the standard stats, Sanders was undeniably an important part of the Patriots’ defense. According to the analytical site Pro Football Focus, Sanders had great numbers in 2010 when compared to the rest of the New England safeties. Analyst Sam Monson writes that in the regular season, Brandon Meriweather had 897 snaps, Patrick Chung had 805 and Sanders had 790. (Including the playoffs, he dropped even further behind, with Meriweather at 952, Chung at 847 and Sanders at 819.)

However, according to PFF, Sanders had the best coverage numbers of the three last year: Playoffs included, quarterbacks had a rating of 100.7 when throwing at Meriweather, 97.8 when throwing at Chung and just 77.1 when throwing at Sanders. It wasn’t like that came on fewer targets either, as the 36 targets for Sanders was six more then Meriweather with Chung way out in front with 51 (skewed by snaps covering the slot at the “star” position.) He was also beaten for a long of just 33 yards compared to Meriweather and Chung who both coughed up 50-plus yard passes. At just 61.1 percent of targets into his coverage complete, he also topped the three for completion percentage (Meriweather was 66.7 and Chung 70.6 percent).

The safety position has been in a fluid state all summer long, with the Patriots shuffling different combinations in and out of the lineup throughout camp and the first three preseason games. In that stretch, Sanders was mostly sidelined with a hamstring problem — he had only been on the field for four practices before his first preseason game action Saturday night against the Lions.

Ultimately, what may have led to a parting of the ways between the Patriots and Sanders was his contract. Sanders was due to make $2.8 million in base salary this season, which New England may have felt was too steep given the fact that he could project to be a backup safety at this point. (With the Patriots $12.5 million under the cap — according to this report from Pro Football Talk — it begs the question: Is New England preparing to make some sort of move?)

Going forward, the Patriots now have Meriweather, Chung, Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett and newcomer James Ihedigbo at safety. In addition, Ross Ventrone returns to the mix, as he was added to the roster on Monday (along with wide receiver Tiquan Underwood). However, the spot certainly bears watching, in the preseason finale and beyond. New England has already brought in veteran safeties Darren Sharper and Renaldo Hill for workouts, and countless others will be available when the first round of cuts are completed by Tuesday at 4 p.m. In addition, others options could hit the market when teams must cut to 53 next week.

Additionally, the Patriots also announced the release Monday of tight end Garrett Mills, wide receivers Darnell Jenkins and Tyree Barnes and cornerbacks Jonathan Wilhite and Malcolm Williams. In addition, long snapper Matt Katula, defensive linemen Kade Weston and Clay Nurse and former UMass kicker Chris Koepplin were also among the roster casualties as the team looked to get down to the 80-man roster limit by the Tuesday deadline.

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It would be funny if he didn't sign with us today. Some of you guys are assuming he is as good as signed. Yes, I'd like him and it is a very good chance and he would be a really good pick up but to assume he is just a Falcon now is funny to me.

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