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A miniseries of subplots

Camp can have drama -- if you watch for it

The Patriots hit the field Tuesday for a mandatory minicamp that promises to be quite exciting.

Well, as exciting as football can be without tackling, pads, fans, a score, or an opponent.

Yep, we're talking about practice. But since it is the first time the team has been seen on the field since getting pounded at Denver in January, there are many things to watch for during the three days of half-dressed rehearsals. The top 10:

1. Deion Branch. Maybe he's saving up his carryover minutes, but the usually accessible Branch has not been taking or returning calls from the media this offseason. Will he make an appearance this week? It's about time for him to come out and admit that he is dissatisfied with the progress (or lack thereof) of his contract negotiations.

Hint: The forthcoming posturing by both sides, which we are obligated to chronicle over the next six weeks, eventually will be rendered meaningless. A deal will get done and Branch will come to training camp (maybe after a short holdout) and say how happy he is that he is remaining a Patriot.

2. Corey Dillon. Speaking of unseen and unheard from players, Dillon has been the Invisible Man this offseason. After grueling workouts in Southern California, he'll presumably show up in great shape and declare that he is ready to return to his pre-senior citizenship form of 2004. (And he'll tell us that the Patriots' drafting of Laurence Maroney in the first round didn't bother him at all. And his close, warm, personal friends and running buddies in the media won't believe him.)

3. Chad Jackson. It is clear that the explosive rookie from Florida will be in the offensive mix from Day 1. Pass catchers don't easily impress Tom Brady, so Jackson will have to earn opportunities. Young wideouts often spend so much time focused on remembering their assignments that they forget to get open. When open, Jackson will make catches, and he can turn short grabs into quick sixes. This week, we'll see how he does against veteran defensive backs (albeit an average crop).

4. The secondary. As stated above, there is an abundance of average here. Channeling Bill Belichick: ``It's very competitive." It'll be difficult to guess the individual standing of many in the secondary because we'll see a host of combinations, and Belichick will dance around questions about starters and backups. Are Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs still the starting corners? Who are the backups? Who is running first-team at Rodney Harrison's safety spot?

Harrison, coming off knee surgery, probably will not be on the field for drills, but an update on his status should come when he makes an appearance at the Patriots' Charitable Foundation golf tournament tomorrow. More Belichick: ``What knee surgery?"

5. The offensive line. Another group with which Belichick will serve a number of combo platters to the media. (The workouts are closed to the public . . . way to go, fourth estate.) With the veteran depth, this could grow into a team strength. We should see whether Matt Light (broken leg) and Dan Koppen (shoulder) are ready to go, and possibly get a glimpse at who is leading the race to start at right tackle (probably Nick Kaczur over Brandon Gorin).

6. Tom Brady. The perfectionist continues to improve, and since he didn't get a new ring this past year (unless we missed something in the gossip pages), he says he is more driven to return the Patriots to the Super Bowl.

With the turnover at receiver (four of the six wideouts on the 2005 opening day roster are gone) the Patriots have to work extra hard on the timing that is critical to the offense's success. This week we'll get a glimpse at Brady and his top new targets: Reche Caldwell, Jackson, and No. 3 tight end David Thomas.

7. Laurence Maroney. The tailback of the future, who should run second-team behind Dillon, looked fluid when the rookies worked out a month ago. The rookie's presence, and speed, should bring an added oomph to the workouts.

8. Monty Beisel. After a disappointing season, Beisel hopes to prove he can be a starter in this defense. If that is the case, Mike Vrabel can return to the outside where he belongs. We'll get our first look at the lineup under new defensive coordinator Dean Pees, formerly the linebackers coach.

9. Matt Cassel. In only his second year, and having played little in college, the backup quarterback is trying to show enough that if the Patriots add a veteran to the mix (likely), the newcomer will be the clear No. 3.

10. Martin Gramatica vs. Stephen Gostkowski. At least we know the Patriots will have a kicker whose last name ends in a vowel. Will it be the excitable veteran Gramatica, who is attempting a comeback after missing an entire season? Or will fourth-round draft pick Gostkowski take on the almost can't-win position of following the best kicker in franchise history? This off-to-the-side battle could be more interesting than anything that happens on the field.

Holmes willing; is he able?

Priest Holmes says he isn't done yet. The Chiefs running back, whose season ended last year after a helmet-to-helmet collision with the Chargers' Shawne Merriman, plans to return.

``Why wouldn't I?" Holmes said. ``It's one thing that's been ingrained in me. I know exactly what to do. I'm a professional, so I could actually go out there with no practice at all and still be able to mentally be ready to go play.

``Now, will I make a mistake? Yes, because I'll be rusty. Haven't been practicing. But being a professional, I could go back out there and score touchdowns."

That is what Holmes, the Chiefs' all-time rushing leader, did better than anyone in league history with 27 rushing scores in 2003. (Seattle's Shaun Alexander tied the mark last season.)

Larry Johnson took over when Holmes went down last season, and had a Pro Bowl season with 1,750 rushing yards and 20 TDs. Kansas City's new head coach, Herman Edwards, has said Johnson would be the starter this season.

Holmes isn't worrying so much about starting as he is about whether doctors will tell him his career is over.

``Ultimately, I believe at the end of the day, it is my final say, my final decision," he said. ``Will I take what they say to heart and really think about it? I will once the time comes.

``I feel great. Now, medically, what I've been told is that I need to wait and not make a quick decision based on the excitement and feeling as though I feel great and I can get out there."

Saban thinks Culpepper is positioned for comeback

Miami coach Nick Saban says Daunte Culpepper is ahead of schedule with his knee injury rehab, and that the quarterback looked good in drills at the team's minicamp over the weekend.

Culpepper moved with no apparent problems, even scrambling out of the pocket at times (though not at full speed), and he threw the ball well.

Saban wouldn't say whether Culpepper would be ready for the season opener (Sept. 7 at Pittsburgh).

``The doctors have told us that what he needs to do right now is things that he needs to do at his position," Saban said. ``That he has the strength and stability to do everything that he needs to do at his position and the best part, the next step of his rehab, would be to do things that he does at his position and play his position.

``Even if he may not be 100 percent in terms of his mobility or movement, it's still the best rehab for him right now."

Culpepper tore three ligaments in his right knee and had surgery in November.

Etc.

Faulk may be running on empty
Marshall Faulk chose not to attend Rams minicamp this weekend, apparently because he is considering retirement. Faulk was slowed by offseason arthroscopic surgery on both knees, but his agent told St. Louis coach Scott Linehan that his client was physically able to participate in the mandatory camp. ``Guys that have played at such a high level for so many years and have taken so many hits, sometimes it starts to wear you down a little bit," Linehan said. ``He's trying to figure out how he can manage it." Faulk, 33, has not had a 1,000-yard season since 2001 (the year he and the Rams lost to the Patriots in the Super Bowl), and he had a career-low 292 yards last year, with his lone start coming in the season finale.

Guilt by association
Apparently Cincinnati rookie linebacker A.J. Nicholson has been hanging with the wrong crowd: Florida State football players. Nicholson was charged with burglary, grand theft, and vandalism for allegedly lifting property worth $1,700 from the apartment of a teammate. ``On my part, [it was] just bad judgment with associations," Nicholson said. (For the record, there is no National Association for the Advancement of Color Televisions.) Nicholson's former FSU teammate, Fred Rouse, was linked to the crime by a receiver's glove left under a television set at the scene. He told police that the Bengals' fifth-round draft pick instigated the break-in at running back Lorenzo Bookers's apartment. The day after police issued the warrant for Nicholson, Cincinnati receiver Chris Henry was arrested for driving under the influence, his third arrest in seven months (one for carrying marijuana and another for carrying a concealed weapon), prompting Bengals coach Marvin Lewis to say he was embarrassed by his players' actions. ``The thing I wanted to address was a little bit of the negative vibe and the foolishness we've had attributed to some very poor choices by a couple of our players, particularly with the association of people," Lewis said. ``The biggest part of that is not going to tarnish all of the good that's been done both on the field and off the field. It does not affect our football team. Our guys have made very positive steps on the football team. We'll move on and they'll be dealt with as they are allowed to be dealt with if things come of this. I told the people that, yes, you embarrass us as an organization, [me and] our coaches, when these things occur. Right, wrong, or indifferent, there are certain things you're asked not to be a part of or around. When it comes out, it comes out, but once it comes out, your name is never cleared. The damage can be done in the larger portion for you and basically for us."

On an honor roll
The Patriots organization continues to be applauded for excellence off the field. Recently, the NFL honored the team with two Player Development awards. The league handed out a total of six awards, with the Patriots being the only team to claim more than one. The franchise's player development program, run by Katie Douglass and Harold Nash, under vice president of community affairs Rena Clark, was awarded the ``2005 Most Outstanding Financial Education Program" and the ``2005 Most Outstanding Player Assistance Program."

No malarkey from Jauron
Buffalo safety Troy Vincent, who was consulted by owner Ralph Wilson during the team's coaching search, likes the change from Mike Mularkey to Dick Jauron, particularly when it comes to their personalities. Jauron, who previously coached the Bears (1999-2003) and was interim coach for the Lions at the end of last season, has a distinct advantage over Mularkey, who lasted just two seasons with the Bills. Vincent said Mularkey was trying to be like Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher, whom he served under as offensive coordinator for three seasons before landing in Buffalo. ``He was trying to build a personality that I'm not sure was what we were," Vincent said. ``You can't teach a show dog how to fight. I have great respect for Coach Mularkey. But that `rrrrrr [growling sound],' that was Cowher. That was the personality. That's who we really weren't as a group." Conversely, Vincent says, Jauron already knows who he is as a coach. ``Now you have someone who's confident in himself who says, `I'm going to coach. I don't need to be like Coach Mularkey. I don't need to be like Cowher. I don't need to be like anybody else. I'm going to make the most out of why we're here and the most out of this talent,' " Vincent said. ``You don't see that very often. To find that is a true rarity."

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report. Jerome Solomon can be reached at jsolomon@globe.com

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