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Patriots sign WR Stallworth

With options, this deal could go long -- six years

STALLWORTH A year, or more? STALLWORTH A year, or more?

The Patriots were exceptionally close to acquiring receiver Donte' Stallworth in a trade before last season when the Eagles swooped in. New England made sure it got its man yesterday, trumping at least three other clubs by signing Stallworth to a free agent contract that could be as short as a one-year deal or as long as a six-year pact.

Stallworth, who turns 27 in November, also had visited with the Titans and Dolphins. Returning to the Eagles was also an option.

His deal with the Patriots could be worth as much as approximately $33 million if all options are picked up over a six-year term.

If the deal winds up being for one year, Stallworth could earn as much as $3.6 million, which includes a $1 million signing bonus, a $700,000 base salary, and a $300,000 workout bonus. Stallworth also could earn $1.6 million in the form of a roster bonus, although it is unknown whether that is a one-time payment or on a game-by-game basis.

The key to determining whether Stallworth's deal is a one-year pact or a longer arrangement will come next February and March, when $8 million in bonuses come due.

Stallworth is the Patriots' second significant addition at receiver within the last week. In acquiring Wes Welker in a trade with the Dolphins last Monday, the team added a target adept at working out of the slot. Meanwhile, the 6-foot, 196-pound Stallworth is more of an outside threat, a speedster who is dangerous after the catch and has the quickness to effectively run intermediate routes. He has averaged 15.1 yards per reception over his five-year career.

The additions have reshaped a receiving corps that also includes Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney, Chad Jackson, Kelvin Kight, Bam Childress, and Jonathan Smith. Jackson, the team's second-round draft choice in 2006, is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the AFC Championship game Jan. 21.

With Stallworth and Welker on board, that could factor into whether veteran Troy Brown returns. Brown, who would enter his 15th NFL season, has taken a wait-and-see approach to free agency.

The Patriots' moves to improve their receiving corps can be traced to last September when they traded Deion Branch to the Seahawks for a first-round draft choice. Branch was the Patriots' top receiver and was entering the final year of his contract, but he held out of camp for a new deal. The sides could not reach an agreement and the Patriots -- previously having lost David Givens in free agency -- had little leverage. Branch ended up signing a six-year, $38.7 million contract in Seattle that included $13 million in bonuses, while the Patriots were left shorthanded at the position with the season already under way.

As for Stallworth, he was a first-round draft choice of the New Orleans Saints in 2002, selected 13th overall out of the University of Tennessee. He was the first receiver drafted that year and became the first NFL rookie in more than 20 years to catch a touchdown pass in each of his first four games, although he was also limited by a hamstring injury.

After totaling 42 receptions and eight touchdowns his rookie season, Stallworth was limited to 11 games and 25 catches in 2003 because of leg and ankle injuries. Yet he rebounded nicely the next two seasons, not missing a game and totaling 58 and 70 receptions, respectively.

With Stallworth limited in 2006 training camp with hamstring woes -- and the Saints hiring a new coach, Sean Payton -- he was traded to the Eagles for a conditional fourth-round draft pick and linebacker Mark Simoneau. The Patriots thought they had a deal in place to acquire Stallworth, but the Saints were looking for linebackers and New England couldn't help them. Stallworth played in 12 games for the Eagles, totaling 38 catches and five TDs, while averaging 19.1 yards per catch. A hamstring injury limited his time on the field, and at times, his effectiveness.

Perhaps because of that injury history, Stallworth was not immediately pursued by teams when free agency began March 2 despite being one of the top receivers available. Another factor in the lukewarm interest might have been a Philadelphia Inquirer report last week that indicated Stallworth is in the NFL's substance abuse program.

That led Stallworth's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, to adjust his strategy. Realizing teams might be reluctant to make a long-term, up-front commitment to Stallworth, he was willing to accept a deal that was similar to what receiver Javon Walker signed with the Broncos last year.

Walker was coming off a serious knee injury when the Broncos signed him to a six-year contract worth about $43 million. Yet the deal was essentially a one-year package because the big bonus payment came in the second year. That structure allowed the Broncos essentially to give Walker a one-year audition to see how his knee would respond before deciding whether to retain him. In February, Denver exercised its option on the remaining five years of his contract.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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