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Samuel's return puts backfield in motion

Ellis Hobbs is one of several Patriots defensive backs whose roles could change with cornerback Asante Samuel back in the mix. Ellis Hobbs is one of several Patriots defensive backs whose roles could change with cornerback Asante Samuel back in the mix. (BILL GREENE/GLOBE STAFF)

FOXBOROUGH -- Now that the Asante Samuel saga is coming to a close -- the de facto holdout and disgruntled franchise cornerback reported to Gillette Stadium yesterday, one month after training camp began and 11 weeks earlier than he had threatened -- the focus shifts to how the Patriots will recast the roles in the secondary once his contract is finalized.

Samuel returned to the team, and coach Bill Belichick said he would undergo a physical and take the team's conditioning run, but according to an NFL Network report, the prodigal cornerback had not signed his $7.79 million franchise tender and was still seeking a guarantee from the team that he wouldn't be franchised again next season.

The report said the contract was likely to be finalized today or tomorrow.

Samuel's representatives did not return calls seeking comment. Patriots owner Robert Kraft said last night at the team's Charitable Foundation Kickoff Gala that he was excited to have Samuel back.

"I'm all excited to have all our players back," he said. "Asante is a great player but you can't win unless you have them all."

Without Samuel, Randall Gay was manning the left cornerback spot across from Ellis Hobbs. The team had been using rookies Brandon Meriweather and Mike Richardson in the slot in nickel and dime situations.

The addition of Samuel, who did not speak with the media at Gillette Stadium opens the door for Belichick to reassess that deployment. Samuel would seem a lock to take over at left corner, as seven of his league-high-tying 10 interceptions came when he was moved there for the last six games of the regular season, and both of his postseason interceptions, which he returned for touchdowns, also came when he started on the left side.

It's possible that Gay could become the "Star" player, as the slot cover man is known in Patriots parlance, or Hobbs could slide over from right cornerback and assume that role in nickel and dime coverages. The Patriots also could slide Meriweather back to safety, the position he was projected at coming out of the University of Miami, although such a move is complicated by the status of Richardson, who didn't practice yesterday; his left arm was in a sling following New England's 24-7 preseason victory over the Carolina Panthers Friday.

Belichick wasn't tipping his hand.

"Asante hasn't been on the practice field yet," he said. "The first thing he's going to do is take his physical and then go through the normal process. We'll take it day-to-day."

Hobbs said the defensive backs are prepared for a readjustment of roles.

"I think we're ready for anything Bill throws at us," said Hobbs. "Whatever ideas about the rotation or however they feel the need to put [Samuel] in. Our main goal has been to practice without Asante. That's what we've been doing.

"It's really all about him, how well does he adapt to us and get back in the swing of things, because we're still moving."

Hobbs said Samuel brings a maturity and understanding of how the Patriots defense works. But just how quickly he'll bring that is as much an unknown now as his eventual reporting date was last month.

"We'll find out," said Hobbs, when asked about how much better the defense is now with Samuel. "I think we've been making improvements so far, regardless. We got our negatives here and there. Time will tell."

The long-term answer is that Samuel is a substantial upgrade, but the short-term outlook depends on what type of playing shape Samuel, who didn't practice yesterday, is in. According to various reports, he has been working out diligently in Florida while he waited for his contract stalemate to be settled, but as Hobbs pointed out, there is a difference between being in shape and being in football shape.

"It takes time for your body to adapt," Hobbs said.

Samuel seemed aware of that, too, deciding to come in before the preseason finale and giving himself almost two full weeks to get ready for the season opener Sept. 9 against the New York Jets at Giants Stadium.

Hobbs said that regardless of Samuel's timing, it was good to have him back.

"You try to keep your personal views out of it as much as possible," said Hobbs. "But on the humane side of it, this is a guy that you've been playing with and you enjoy being with. It's not like he's a jerk or anything, so you're happy to see him back."

But Hobbs said there is no time to stop and celebrate Samuel's arrival. He isn't the secondary's savior. He's just another piece -- albeit an important one.

"Nothing is different, man," said Hobbs. "We're not going to throw a parade or anything like that. It's business.

"The business side is over with, obviously. Now, it's time to get down to the real business on the field, and that's trying to win ballgames."

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