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For kicks, Gramatica signed as a possible replacement

Martin Gramatica was one of the NFL’s top kickers with Tampa Bay, but struggled in 2003 and 2004 and didn’t play in 2005.
Martin Gramatica was one of the NFL’s top kickers with Tampa Bay, but struggled in 2003 and 2004 and didn’t play in 2005. (AP Photo)

Martin Gramatica, once cleverly billed as ''Automatica," is first in line to replace the irreplaceable Adam Vinatieri, a.k.a. ''Mr. Automatic."

The Patriots signed Gramatica, a veteran free agent, yesterday two weeks after losing Vinatieri to the Indianapolis Colts. Coincidentally, Indianapolis was the last NFL home for Gramatica.

Gramatica, who was not in the league last season, last kicked in 2004, a season in which he was released by Tampa Bay two days after missing a trio of field goals (one was blocked) against the Panthers in the 11th game of that season. A week and a half later he signed with the Colts, serving as the team's kickoff specialist for the final four games of the regular season.

He underwent surgery last June to repair tears in his lower abdomen and adductor muscle, injuries he says were responsible for his erratic kicking in 2003 and '04. The injury is the same one Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had surgery to repair in February.

Gramatica attacked rehab with a vigor and was at full strength during last season, but did not sign with a team.

''I told him, 'I feel bad that you're here with me; you need to be on TV on Sundays winning football games,' " said Jason Biles, a physical therapist who worked with Gramatica at the Bollettieri Sports Medicine Center at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. ''He was kicking 50-plus-yard field goals with me, over and over, and not many people can do that.

''He has that strength back now, and it's amazing . . . great focus, great intensity in his workouts, and he was determined to get back to kicking as quickly as possible. He's been ready for some time."

Gramatica, a 30-year-old born in Argentina, is looking to revive a career that began with numbers that put him among the top kickers in the game. A Pro Bowl selection in 2000, Gramatica is Tampa Bay's all-time leading scorer with 591 points in six seasons (1999-2004), including the franchise's top three scoring seasons (128 points in 2002, 126 in 2000, and 106 in 1999).

But Gramatica, who made two field goals in the Buccaneers' Super Bowl XXXVII victory over Oakland, seemed to lose it in 2003 and '04, making only 27 of 45 field goal attempts. In his first four seasons in the league, Gramatica's worst percentage was 79.3 (23 of 29 in 2001), but he made just 61.5 percent (16 of 26) in '03 and 57.9 percent (11 of 19) in '04.

The high-strung Gramatica is in some ways the opposite of the cool, even-tempered Vinatieri. Though he doesn't have a reputation for late-game heroics -- he has delivered five winning field goals in his career, compared with Vinatieri's 20 -- when he is right, he has a stronger leg than the Patriots' Super Bowl hero, and five times in his career Gramatica has made four or more field goals in a game.

A third-round pick (80th overall) in the 1999 draft, Gramatica hopes to get back to showing the booming leg that was among the strongest and most accurate in the league before, he says, the injury hurt his accuracy.

''The injury is hard to diagnose," said Biles, who as a performance enhancement specialist is working with Gramatica in preparation for the Patriots' May minicamp. ''Until he was able to get the surgery he was playing at a disadvantage, so to speak. There's no question that he's back to his pre-injury form.

''He's a very confident guy. A top-notch professional kicker. He knows that he's good. He's got that quiet confidence, but when he gets on the field he's a different animal. That's the excitable guy people see, and he's like that when he's working out, too.

''There's no doubt about it, he's ready to go."

Gramatica, the Lou Groza Award winner in 1997 as a junior at Kansas State, booted a 65-yard field goal as a senior, the longest successful kick in NCAA history without a tee.

The Patriots will bring in at least two other kickers for tryouts this offseason, and almost certainly one will be a rookie. New England special teams coach Brad Seely is scheduled to attend a workout of Ohio State kicker Josh Huston Monday.

Huston, rated among the top three kickers in this year's draft by most scouts, is probably going to go undrafted and will sign as a free agent the day after the draft. Stephen Gostkowski of Memphis, Jon Scifres of Southwest Missouri State, and Connor Hughes of Virginia are other highly rated draft-eligible kickers.

The Patriots also re-signed safety Tebucky Jones yesterday. New England took Jones in the first round of the 1998 draft (No. 22 overall), and he played for the Patriots for five seasons before being traded to New Orleans for three draft picks in April 2003. After two seasons there, he played in Miami last season.

Jones joins a growing list of safeties on the Patriots' roster. New England has as many as nine players who could be listed as safeties: Rodney Harrison, Eugene Wilson, James Sanders, Guss Scott, Artrell Hawkins, Jones, Mel Mitchell, Ray Ventrone, and Eric Warfield.

Harrison is coming off major knee surgery. Scott, No. 3 on the depth chart entering last season, is enduring his second straight offseason in knee surgery rehab. Hawkins could get a look at cornerback, where he played his entire career before coming to the Patriots last year. Mitchell is a special teamer who shouldn't figure into the defensive plans. Ventrone is a practice squad/NFL Europe player and long shot to make the squad. Warfield, signed earlier this week, has played only corner in his career, but says the Patriots have informed him he could be moved to safety as the team sees fit.

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