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On special assignment

Rookie DB Andrews hoping to impress the Patriots as a return man

FOXBOROUGH -- Bill Belichick believes every football season is an independent tale, unrelated to the previous year.

According to the Patriots coach, the first two days of New England's rookie minicamp were like Pages 1 and 2 of a novel.

Few of the players whose names appeared in the initial pages of a book that has yet to be written -- the Patriots' 2006 season -- will be key characters when the plot thickens.

In fact, most of the 31 rookies participating in the three-day camp will be written out of the book before the season begins.

While first-round pick Laurence Maroney, second-round choice Chad Jackson, and third-round selection David Thomas are roster locks and likely to be involved in the offensive rotation, the best way for the others to hang on is by excelling on special teams.

Defensive back Willie Andrews, a seventh-round pick from Baylor, has received that message.

''That's what Coach Belichick said, 'Make the team on special teams first, then work your way toward the defense,' " Andrews said. ''Wherever I can play -- if they need me on offense, anywhere -- I'm willing to do it."

Where the Patriots might need him first is as a punt and kick returner. Tim Dwight, 12th in the NFL last year with a punt return average of 8.5 yards, signed with the Jets in March. Among the three players with 10 or more chances, Dwight also had the highest average on the team (25.0 yards) on kick returns.

Bethel Johnson and Ellis Hobbs, the players ahead of Dwight in kick return opportunities, both return. But Johnson will be asked to show he can contribute more in the passing game this season or he may not hold onto a roster spot. And the staff would want to lessen Hobbs's load, as he probably will start at cornerback.

That means opportunity for the likes of Andrews, the 229th player taken in the draft.

In the first morning of the rookie camp, Belichick had all of the defensive backs, receivers, and running backs take a shot at catching punts to see if any showed skill. Andrews should have stood out in those drills, as he holds Baylor career yardage marks in kick and punt returns. He was a first-team All-Big 12 return specialist in 2004. (Hobbs was a defensive back on that honors squad.)

Though he did not notch a touchdown return, Andrews proved to be a solid, consistent threat. He hopes to show he can do the same at the next level.

''I have to work on fundamentals and show them that I can catch the ball well and do it the right way every time," said Andrews, who had more punt returns than any player in Division 1 in 2004. ''It's the little things [coaches] are looking for, things that people watching the game who aren't coaches wouldn't understand.

''The first emphasis is catching the ball -- you can't get up the field until you catch the ball."

Andrews eventually hopes to be more than a return man, as he was an all-conference pick at defensive back as a senior. He worked at safety and cornerback over the weekend, as the Patriots try to test the newcomers to see where they best fit. Only 5 feet 10 inches, 193 pounds, he lined up at strong safety in college and was called upon to help an undersized Bears line against the run. That linebacker mentality is why he half-joked that he couldn't wait for the team to get into pads so he could ''stick" Maroney.

For now, Andrews's first task is to show the coaching staff that he can indeed play at this level.

The Patriots brought 14 defensive backs to camp last year; 10 made the final roster. They currently have 21 cornerbacks and safeties on the squad, with the goal to enter camp with around 15.

''I think you always have a few more players on the roster in late May and June than what you end up with when you finally go to camp at the end of July," Belichick said. ''I would say the numbers are going to be about the same [as last year], certainly within two, maybe within one, I don't know. It's because you need certain numbers to go to camp with. If you start putting two or three extra guys at one position, then they're going to have to come from somewhere else."

Guy Morriss, the former Patriot player and coach, used a variety of coverages at Baylor, but the Bears' base 4-3 defense is quite a bit different from the Patriots' 3-4. Andrews, whose college coaches praised his attention to detail, said his goal is not to simply learn his assignments, but to know where every player on the defense is supposed to be.

The more he knows about the Patriots' defense, the more likely he is to find a spot on the roster.

''If I need to play nickel back or safety or corner, if I can do them all, that'll help me make the team," Andrews said. ''You have to be versatile and willing to do whatever is asked to contribute."

There are limits to where Andrews would like to contribute.

''[The NFL] is very efficient. Things have to be kept up and you must be on time, or you can be fined thousands of dollars . . . dollars that I don't even have," he said with a chuckle. ''That's extra pressure right now."

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