FOXBOROUGH — He wasn’t invited to the NFL combine. He wasn’t drafted. And when the San Diego Chargers signed him as a rookie free agent in 2006, they assigned him to the practice squad.
Steve Gregory, son of a retired New York City police officer, always embraced the role of underdog.
“When you’re a guy like me, you have to earn your way,” Gregory said. “You have to prove yourself every single training camp.”
Even this training camp.
Gregory, who is entering his eighth season, started 12 games for the Patriots last year at safety.
Yet at a position that includes Devin McCourty, Adrian Wilson, and Tavon Wilson, Gregory is seemingly on the bubble for a roster spot in 2013.
“If you look at the depth chart, maybe it seems like that,” Gregory said. “But I approach it that way every year. Every year you just fight in training camp to prove that you should be there. And that’s the way it should be.”
For most of last season, Gregory played out of position at strong safety. Listed at 5 feet 11 inches and 200 pounds, the Syracuse graduate is more suited for free safety. But that’s been McCourty’s spot since he was switched from cornerback in Week 6 of last season.
McCourty and Gregory developed chemistry, but the Patriots’ secondary struggled (ranked 29th against the pass), and at times opponents exposed the undersized Gregory.
Take the AFC Championship game, for example. According ProFootballFocus.com, the Ravens’ Joe Flacco had a 151.3 rating when he threw to targets in Gregory’s coverage area.
This offseason, the Patriots signed five-time Pro Bowl selection Adrian Wilson, a 6-3, 230-pound natural strong safety. Tavon Wilson, a promising second-year pro out of the University of Illinois, plays there, too. Rookie Kanorris Davis, an undersized linebacker at Troy, is in the mix, as well.
That leaves Gregory as McCourty’s backup. Or at any position the Patriots need him. Gregory played several positions Friday and Saturday at training camp.
McCourty, a captain last season who has 46 games of NFL experience, missed spring practice sessions following shoulder surgery. He has worn a non-contact jersey through the first two days of camp.
“We pride ourselves in being a secondary that’s interchangeable,” Gregory said. “And I am ready to play wherever the team needs me.”
It’s been that way his entire career. Gregory played wide receiver his junior year at Syracuse. He made the Chargers’ roster as a special teams player.
Since then, he said he has played “just about any defensive position.”
“He knows it all,” Adrian Wilson said. “He knows every position. We can lean on him as well as Devin. It brings a lot of versatility to the group. And a lot of veteran presence, as well.”
Not too undersized to play strong safety?
“He has a big heart and he’s smart,” Adrian Wilson said. “He has a lot of intangibles you don’t see on the outside. He’s not big, but he plays big.”
Gregory, 30, is entering the second year of a three-year, $7.05 million contract. Davis, an undrafted free agent, is a younger and cheaper option, and Gregory knows it.
“Even though it was eight years ago, I still remember how it felt to not be drafted,” Gregory said. “That’s why I fight every year. I know nothing is a given.”
Gregory posted 31 tackles, a career-high three interceptions, and two fumble recoveries last season.
His most memorable play occurred in the Thanksgiving Day game against the Jets.
Gregory, who earlier had an interception, recovered a fumble by New York quarterback Mark Sanchez and ran 32 yards for a touchdown. Sanchez had lost the ball after running into the backside of his right guard.
“I’m from New York and have a bunch of friends that are Jets fans,” Gregory said. “Every other word out of their month is ‘butt fumble.’ ”
Gregory said he hopes to produce a more memorable play this season to erase that from their memories.
No matter what position he is playing.