There are plenty of bodies in New England preparing to battle for the starting cornerback slot vacated by the free agent departure of All-Pro Asante Samuel. Atop the list of candidates is veteran free agent Fernando Bryant, followed by second-round pick Terrence Wheatley and maybe even versatile 2007 first-round pick Brandon Meriweather.
But another potential candidate -- Mike Richardson -- was getting plenty of reps this week during a few days of Patriots passing camp at Gillette Stadium that included a group of 36 players, the bulk of whom are first-year New Englanders.
Coming off a year on injured reserve as a rookie, Richardson is a 'tweener of sorts on the practice fields these days -- partially an inexperienced new face, but with a hint of knowledge from his year around the Patriots. The second-year cornerback from Notre Dame made it only as far as New England's third preseason game last summer. In that August contest versus Carolina, Richardson -- who to that point was having a relatively impressive inaugural NFL camp as a sixth-round draft pick -- suffered a season-ending wrist injury.
As he taken part in the passing camp work of OTAs at Gillette Stadium with other newcomers and select veterans, he feels like he's still in his rookie year.
"In some aspects, it does," he conceded. "Coming out here for the minicamps, I do have an idea of what to expect, so it's not as stressful as it was last year."
What was stressful was sitting on the sidelines, watching his teammates rip off 18 consecutive wins and a Super Bowl appearance ... and not being able to contribute. But Richardson insists he was still able to improve his game just by observing.
"Just being able to watch and soak up a lot of the things that the veteran guys are doing. Just learning that has helped me a lot, focusing more on the mental part of the game."
"Being able to read offenses," he said. "Knowing what the receiver is going to do in certain situations and formations."
But there's no substitute for hands-on, on-the-field training to make a player feel comfortable about his role with a team. And that's where Richardson finds himself again, mixing it up in helmets-only sessions.
"It feels real good to be back out with my teammates, actually being able to participate," he added, "do some things, keep working, just trying to get back in the swing of things. It's definitely valuable, especially for a guy like me who wasn't out here practicing a lot last year."
Like the rest of the corners on the roster, Richardson understands there's an opportunity for someone new to step into the starting role.
"It's all up to the coaches. I'm just going to come out here and do the best I can to show them that I can actually participate and make plays. You never know when you're going to lose someone, and somebody has to be able to step in. It's up to us to be prepared and make the plays.
"It's all about what you do out here," Richardson continued. "Once you step out onto the field, it's anybody's job. Anybody that shows up day in and day out and does the right things, (the coaches are going to) put out there."
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