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Playing catch-up, Patriots dive in and sign Caldwell

While some teams (see: Washington Redskins) have attacked NFL free agency like garage sale fanatics, the Patriots were rather quiet during the first week teams were allowed to negotiate with unsigned players.

Well, the team's offices in Foxborough are indeed open for business. Yesterday, the Patriots made their first free agent signing of the offseason, coming to terms with receiver Reche Caldwell, formerly of the San Diego Chargers.

Interestingly, in the week of practice before the Chargers faced New England last Oct. 2, Caldwell played the role of Deion Branch in practice, even donning a No. 83 Patriots jersey. Now he gets to line up alongside the star wideout as the early favorite to be the Patriots' No. 2 receiver.

''Reche made the comment to me after he met with [Patriots coach Bill] Belichick that he was excited about the team's offense," said Tony Fleming, Caldwell's agent.

''He said there were some routes he had never seen before, but he really felt like it was a system designed for a quarterback and receiver to make some plays.

''He knows what the organization has done and he knows what type of quarterback is there. He sees it as an opportunity of a lifetime."

A Tampa native who played at the University of Florida, Caldwell met Belichick in Gainesville, Fla., recently when Belichick was on a scouting trip. He came to Foxborough this week to tour the team's facilities at Gillette Stadium.

Caldwell, the Chargers' second-round draft pick in 2002, started only 14 games with the Chargers in four seasons and is deemed a disappointment as the 48th overall pick (Antwaan Randle El was the 62d pick, Antonio Bryant was the 63d, and the Patriots picked up Branch at 65). Caldwell has 76 receptions for 950 yards and 7 TDs in his career; Branch had 78 catches for 998 yards and 5 TDs last season alone.

But the Patriots lost David Givens (Tennessee) and little-used Andre' Davis (Buffalo) to free agency, and have not signed Troy Brown or Tim Dwight. The only veteran receivers under contract are Branch and Bethel Johnson, who might not be with the squad next year if the team can work out a trade.

Enter Caldwell, who at 6 feet, 215 pounds is listed at exactly the same size as Givens.

Caldwell had problems with dropped balls early in his career and missed significant time in two seasons with injuries (2003: seven games because of wrist and hamstring; 2002: final nine games with torn anterior cruciate ligament), but the flashes of brilliance have convinced some that Caldwell has a huge upside.

''He has the ability to be a No. 1 someday," coach Marty Schottenheimer told the San Diego Union-Tribune last June.

Like Givens, Caldwell doesn't have sprinter speed, and he is not a disciplined route runner. But Givens came to the Patriots with raw talent and left a fairly polished wideout who was one of the most coveted receivers on the free agent market this offseason.

Caldwell, who turns 27 in 10 days, feels he is capable of taking the step from being one of the guys to being an important cog in an offense.

''They're giving him a chance to compete and prove himself, and if he does what he's capable of, he'll get on the field," Fleming said.

Kicker Adam Vinatieri was home in Orlando last night after visiting with Green Bay Packers officials. An NFL source said he left town without a contract offer.

Vinatieri had dinner in Green Bay with coach Mike McCarthy Thursday, as the Packers gauged whether Vinatieri was serious about leaving New England or just trying to drive up the Patriots' initial offer.

Vinatieri told the Packers he will leave New England if the Packers offer the better deal.

The Packers lost kicker Ryan Longwell, who signed a five-year, $10 million deal with Minnesota that included a $3 million signing bonus. According to the source, team brass are debating whether to offer Vinatieri just as much, or more. It would likely take more to pry Vinatieri from the Patriots.

The Patriots are likely to match an offer, or at least come close, unless there are some unusual guarantees. New England elected not to put a franchise tag on Vinatieri because of the $3 million salary and hit to the salary cap, but a Longwell-like deal is probably not out of line with the team's budget.

The Packers, who are some $25 million under the salary cap, have room to make a higher offer, but general manager Ted Thompson is reluctant to make huge free agent deals.

Offensive tackle Tom Ashworth picked up new suitors recently in the Houston Texans and New Orleans Saints.

When free agency began, Ashworth took three visits -- to the Jets, Buccaneers, and Dolphins. Late this week, the Texans and Saints increased their interest, although no visits are scheduled.

Meanwhile, the Patriots have kept open the possibility of bringing Ashworth back.

The Patriots are also hoping to re-sign guard Stephen Neal, but Neal was in Buffalo yesterday, though the Bills tendered an offer to the Cardinals' Reggie Walls, a restricted free agent.

Mike Reiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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