FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Just a rookie in the NFL, Terrence Wheatley is in the same position as veteran Fernando Bryant - learning the Patriots’ defensive system and trying to stop Randy Moss in practice.
Then there’ s the added burden of the competition to replace star cornerback Asante Samuel.
For Bryant and Wheatley, it’ s one step at a time, even if that step may be too slow to keep up with some of New England’ s speedy receivers.
“We’ re definitely in the same boat,” said Wheatley, a second-round draft choice from Colorado.
With Samuel gone to Philadelphia as a free agent and the other starter, Ellis Hobbs, not at full strength after offseason surgery, the cornerback spots are unsettled less than a week into training camp.
In the offseason, the Patriots added veterans Bryant, entering his 10th season, Jason Webster and Lewis Sanders and drafted Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite from Auburn in the fourth round. Mike Richardson returns from last year’ s team, which also lost nickel back Randall Gay to New Orleans.
The work of Wheatley and Wilhite continues when they return to the hotel where they’ re roommates.
“We definitely compare notes after the end of practice,” Wheatley said Tuesday. ” ‘ You see what Randy did that play and how close I was,’ but yet I really wasn’ t that close. … When you get up in the morning you’ re like, ‘ man, do your legs hurt as much as mine?’ “
Bryant could have the edge on Samuel’ s spot. He spent his first five seasons with Jacksonville after being drafted with the 26th pick of the first round from Alabama in 1999. Then he played four with Detroit, starting all 16 games last season, before the Lions released him last February.
Despite all his experience, the Patriots camp has plenty of new wrinkles for him.
“There’ s a lot of expectations on the outside and you can’ t really listen to that,” Bryant said. “It’ s what we do here. From the outside looking in, you’ re looking at Sunday’ s game and you think everything is great.
“Then you come back in here and we look at things and everything doesn’ t go as smooth as everybody thinks it does.”
The Patriots should be able to straighten that out and make another run at the Super Bowl, especially with a weak schedule. They were 18-0 last season before losing the championship game to the New York Giants 17-14.
On such an established team, though, there’ s still room for newcomers to play key roles.
Before last season, the Patriots overhauled the wide receiver spot when they added Moss, Wes Welker and Donte’ Stallworth. Now the cornerback spots are changing.
“The coaching staff is pretty upfront about everything and the best player’ s going to play,” Bryant said. “That was one of the reasons I came here. It doesn’ t matter about age. It doesn’ t matter about years or Pro Bowls or anything like that. The bottom line is this organization is about winning.”
So the cornerbacks work together — answering each other’ s questions, giving advice — even though they’ re competing among themselves for playing time.
“The secondary’ s a closeknit group so we talk about everything,” Bryant said. He and Wheatley “sit by each other in the meetings. If he has some things he has questions about I try to talk to him about them. The biggest thing (is) I just tell him to take it slow.
“Everything’ s going to come at him quick, but anytime you can slow it down on and off the field you’ re going to have a better shot.”
Unless, of course, you’ re trying to keep up with Moss on a downfield pattern.
That’ s not easy for rookies, as Wheatley has told Wilhite.
“There were a few times where I just told him, ‘ I saw you when you took off deep. You didn’ t even look for the ball. You just put your head down and ran,’ ” Wheatley said. “I had to do that (too). I just wanted to make sure I wasn’ t the only one out there doing it.”