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Depleted Patriots rewarded

Receiving corps gets reinforcements

FOXBOROUGH -- Before the season, and before one was shown the door after an unproductive stay in Jacksonville and the other the exit following an even-less-productive stint in Baltimore, any Patriots fan would have nodded his or her head in approval of a New England receiving depth chart that included Troy Brown, Deion Branch, David Givens, rookie Bethel Johnson, and either J.J. Stokes or Dedric Ward. You would have been inclined to ask, "What's the catch?" if told both would be members of the Patriots' receiving corps.

Funny how time and circumstances can alter the perception of the same event. With Brown and Givens having missed the past two practices with leg injuries and looking more like "doubtful" than "questionable" for Sunday's game at Houston, yesterday's signing of Ward -- two days after the team brought Stokes into the fold -- was more of a necessity than a luxury. The Ravens released Ward Tuesday. The Patriots need him as much as he needs them.

Ward arrived yesterday after agreeing to what likely was a contract through the remainder of the season that will pay him a prorated salary of about $187,000. He was given the locker next to Ty Law and issued jersey No. 17, which, coupled with Jamin Elliott's number (10) and the number of receivers on the roster (seven) does give the locker room something of a training camp feel.

Ward was with the Patriots in training camp but was beaten out by Givens and David Patten for the fifth receiver spot. Ironically, Ward can point to Patten's season-ending knee surgery two weeks ago as one of the reasons he's back.

The 5-foot-9-inch, 185-pound Ward was among the Patriots' final roster cuts Aug. 31, signed with the Ravens Oct. 6, and was active for three of six games with Baltimore. The run-oriented Ravens aren't exactly every receiver's dream destination, thus Ward is still looking for his first catch of the season.

"Dedric came about as close to being kept on the 53-man roster as you could possibly be," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said yesterday. "It was a very tough decision not to keep him on the roster at the start of the season. Very tough. I feel fortunate that we were able to get him at this point."

Ward, who said that, contrary to reports, he was not injured this season, merely inactive, spent the 1997-99 seasons in Charlie Weis's offense with the Jets. He can play both outside receiver positions and in the slot. He also can return punts if necessary.

"Dedric would have a jump on anybody coming in here that isn't already here," Belichick said. "Anybody else coming in he would have a jump on based on training camp and preseason."

Which means that even with a short week of preparation, Ward should be ready to play Sunday.

In this struggling economy, Ward was merely pleased to get another opportunity. "It was having a job vs. not having a job," he said. "It was an easy decision."

It's also no problem for Ward to acclimate himself to an environment he was part of just a few months ago. It's as though he's been on vacation.

"I always had a pretty good rapport with Coach Belichick," Ward said. "I knew I had a chance to get back here. As for the system, I've got a pretty good grasp of what's going on."

On the other hand, the crash course continued for Stokes.

Evaluating the former 49er's first practice, Belichick said, "J.J. was OK, I thought, for learning a new system. He's really been in that West Coast offensive system, which, as we all know, is a great offensive system, it's just a little bit different from what we do. He stayed after practice [Wednesday] and ran a lot of routes. I think that's coming. It's only been one day, but it didn't look bad."

Brown and Givens, meanwhile, are believed to be suffering from muscle strains. Belichick was asked if Brown had a lingering injury.

"I wish I knew the answer to that question," he said. "I really don't."

And the way things have gone with regard to the receivers lately, Belichick, when asked about Ward's health, crossed his fingers, hoping not to jinx the new guy.

"We'll cross our fingers on that. Yes," Belichick answered. "They're all healthy until we put them out there. Then as soon as we put them out there, that's when the problems start."

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