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Not relying on old hands

At receiver, Patriots hope new guys catch on quickly

FOXBOROUGH -- The quarterback is entering his prime years, the running back and tight end positions are stocked with talented players, and the up-and-coming offensive line has been rock-solid throughout the preseason.

The Patriots could have one of the most dynamic offenses in the NFL, although there is one area of uncertainty: Who's going to play wide receiver and make defenses respect the outside-the-numbers passing game?

The candidates took the field for practice yesterday, and the situation wasn't ideal, as two players -- newly acquired Doug Gabriel and Jonathan Smith -- were catching passes from Tom Brady for the first time. It was as if they were cramming for a final exam.

``We'll try to accelerate it as much as we can this week," said coach Bill Belichick.

They'll have to, because the only other active-roster receivers at practice were old reliable Troy Brown and free agent pickup Reche Caldwell, who has looked sharp in practice but not so much in games. The Patriots are still without rookie second-round pick Chad Jackson (hamstring) and Deion Branch (holdout).

Perhaps realizing that a productive crop of receivers is the last remaining ingredient for a winning recipe, Brady has befriended Gabriel, a 6-foot-2-inch, 215-pound target who was acquired from the Raiders Saturday. Gabriel hopped on a red-eye flight that night, arrived at Gillette Stadium Sunday morning, and said he has been ``talking a lot" with Brady as they attempt to develop some chemistry.

``He has knowledge for the game, and I'm glad I'm here, to be in the system with him," said the 26-year-old Gabriel. ``He told me it isn't physical, it's more mental."

While it might be risky to rely on a player who has appeared in 42 career games with just seven starts, the Patriots will need immediate contributions from Gabriel. Belichick said they were following the fourth-year veteran throughout the preseason.

``He's been a productive player for the Raiders," Belichick said. ``He's big, he has some quickness, he can catch the ball, and he's had some production in the return game. I think there are a number of areas that he'll be competitive in."

Gabriel, who has 71 career catches and averages an impressive 15.8 yards per grab, was caught off-guard by the trade. At times he had been working with the starters in Oakland -- which has a deep receiving group that includes Randy Moss, Jerry Porter, and Ronald Curry -- and was coming off a 37-catch, three-touchdown season. Gabriel and Moss had a strong bond, Gabriel saying they were like brothers.

Upon arriving at Gillette Stadium, Gabriel -- a former teammate of cornerback Asante Samuel at Central Florida -- asked for the Patriots playbook and began studying it on the spot.

``I get in my books and I'll be ready," he said. ``I've been doing this for a long time, so I don't think it's going to be difficult."

Gabriel looked smooth running through the team's four-cone drill yesterday, his long strides distinguishing him from his fellow receivers. His style is a significant contrast to the 5-10, 194-pound Smith, who was claimed off waivers from the Bills Saturday.

To make room for Smith on the roster, the Patriots released receiver Bam Childress, who totaled 11 catches for 214 yards over four exhibition games and was re-signed to the practice squad yesterday. Belichick hinted that Smith could help the team in ways that Childress couldn't at this time.

``I think the players that are currently on the roster at that position have a little bit of a different set of skills," Belichick said. ``Given the overall makeup of the roster and where we are, we feel like that is a better way to go."

Smith, who has appeared in 16 career games, also could be a factor on kickoff and punt returns. One of his nine career punt returns was a 70-yard touchdown against the Patriots in 2004.

``He's had some success against us," Belichick said. ``Watching him in the preseason, Jonathan has played in the slot, he's played outside, he's returned kicks. He's another guy that we feel has some versatility."

So for now the Patriots are going with a four-man receiving group, and two of the pass-catchers practiced for the first time yesterday. Only one, Brown, has caught a pass from Brady in a regular-season game.

``I think, with the new players, we'll have to see how all of that works out," Belichick said.

Indeed, the receiver position remains the great unknown.

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