FOXBORO, Mass. — Late in the first quarter of Sunday’s Patriots season opener at Gillette Stadium, A.J. Brown caught a shallow cross over the middle and turned upfield.

Plays like that typically don’t turn out well for opposing defenses. Brown stands a rock-solid 6-foot-1, 226 pounds, and he averaged the fifth-most yards after the catch of any NFL wideout last season, picking up an additional 6.6 per reception.

In this particular situation, he needed around 8 to move the chains on third-and-10. He got zero.

Before Jalen Hurts’ pass even reached Brown, defensive back Myles Bryant shot up from his alignment near the first-down marker. He arrived a half-second after the ball and buried the much bigger Brown to force a Philadelphia punt.

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Bryant — who at 5-9, 192 pounds is four inches shorter and more than 30 pounds lighter than the Eagles’ Pro Bowl pass-catcher — is one of the most criticized members of the Patriots roster. But his versatility, intelligence and deceptive physicality make him a valuable cog in one of the NFL’s deepest secondaries.

“Myles is a Swiss Army knife,” veteran safety Jabrill Peppers said Thursday. “We have other guys that do it, but he can play outside, inside and deep safety. Even on some instances, certain motions, he bumps and is like a small linebacker in certain packages.

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“Just having a guy that plays at that high level with that IQ that really speaks the game, that picks up little nuggets because he notices a split or something like that, I think every team should have one of those guys.”

Bryant, who also decked a Green Bay Packers receiver during the preseason, has been the Patriots’ primary slot cornerback since Jonathan Jones suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in October 2021. The Patriots shifted Jones outside upon his return, and Bryant stuck as the top nickel option over 2022 third-round pick Marcus Jones. But he also takes snaps back deep at free safety, in the box as a diminutive dime linebacker and even as a perimeter cornerback on occasion.

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The 25-year-old Washington product has been bouncing between multiple defensive alignments since he joined the Patriots as an undrafted rookie in 2020, growing more comfortable in his multifaceted role each year. Bryant credited that increased comfort level to the veteran teammates he’s had.

“Most definitely,” he said. “Because all I’d do is if I have a question at corner, I’d go ask Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty and J.C. (Jackson). If I had a question about nickel, I’d go ask Jon Jones. If I had a question at safety, I’d ask Dev (Devin McCourty). I made it a task of me to go out there and be curious, ask those guys. … Just trying to learn.”

Cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino called Bryant “a workhorse.”

“All he does is work,” Pellegrino said Tuesday in a video conference. “He just puts in the time, and he cares about this game so much. I respect that so much about his effort that he puts into this game, and his preparation, his focus. He’s always dialed in, and I always appreciate that about Myles.”

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Four years in, Bryant now is one of New England’s longest-tenured defensive backs. He arrived the same year as safeties Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips and predates players like Peppers, Jalen Mills, Jack Jones and Marcus Jones. The only current Patriots DB with more years of experience in this system is Jonathan Jones, who’s been with the team since 2016.

Bryant’s game does have flaws, and he’s been a lightning rod for social media criticism ever since speedy Buffalo Bills slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie torched him in a 2021 matchup at Gillette Stadium (six targets, five first downs, three third-down conversions). He doesn’t have the wheels to stick with faster wideouts, meaning the Patriots won’t want him isolated in man coverage against Tyreek Hill or Jaylen Waddle when they host the Miami Dolphins this Sunday night.

But, as Peppers said, every team needs a do-it-all glue guy in its secondary, and Bryant plays his role well.

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“I kind of just get in where I fit in,” he said. “Whatever the team needs, I just go out there and play.”

Featured image via Brian Fluharty/USA TODAY Sports Images