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Patriots close on Thomas

Agreement expected once LB passes physical; Dillon released

The Patriots are on the cusp of making a major free agent splash, as linebacker Adalius Thomas is scheduled to arrive at Gillette Stadium today. Assuming he passes a physical and there are no unexpected hitches, the sides are expected to finalize an agreement to make Thomas a Patriot, according to a source familiar with the negotiations.

Thomas, 29, is widely considered one of the top players in free agency. Earlier yesterday, his agent, James "Bus" Cook, indicated that things were moving quickly, although he said Thomas had not met with any teams yesterday.

"I'm hoping that in the next day or two we get it all figured out, and that we get it knocked out over the weekend," Cook said of general negotiations, not those specifically with the Patriots. "Stay tuned and we'll see what happens. As one would imagine, it's been real, real crazy."

The 6-foot-2-inch, 270-pound Thomas, who has spent the first seven years of his career with the Ravens, totaled a career-high 11 sacks last season. He is a versatile, athletic defender who would likely line up at outside linebacker in the Patriots' 3-4 defense, and can rush the passer as a down lineman. Linebacker is arguably the Patriots' most pressing need, and Thomas would provide an unquestioned boost.

Free agency began yesterday morning at 12:01, and while the Patriots have usually avoided the initial rush, when salaries are often sky-high, this year is different. Thomas could command as much as $18 million in bonuses, with the aggressive Patriots vying against the 49ers, and perhaps others.

One factor that might have helped the Patriots in their pursuit was that Thomas got to know coach Bill Belichick at the Pro Bowl in February.

"I never really met Belichick before, and you always hear about how he's a mean guy, but it's real interesting to see how he reacts with different players, how he gets comfortable over here," Thomas told the Associated Press at the time. "He's actually a really nice guy. I was surprised."

While the team's courting of Thomas generated a significant buzz, the Patriots also hosted veteran tight end Kyle Brady and running back Sammy Morris, and officially released running back Corey Dillon.

The 6-6, 280-pound Brady, who is entering his 13th season, is known for his blocking and durability (missing only nine games in his career). His receiving numbers have dipped in recent years, as he had five catches in 16 games last season.

Brady, 35, is likely seeking a short-term deal, and barring a contract agreement with the Patriots last night, he was scheduled to meet with the Broncos today. Brady's presence in Foxborough was likely tied to the Patriots' belief that free agent Daniel Graham will be signing elsewhere, and that Brady is the best player on the market to fill the void.

Morris was also a free agent target of the Patriots in 2004. A versatile threat who contributes as a rusher and receiver, the 6-foot, 218-pound Morris has played for the Bills (2000-03) and Dolphins (2004-06).

While the Patriots met with Brady and Morris, they officially said goodbye to Dillon, whose three-year tenure with the team began with a bang when he set a franchise record with 1,635 rushing yards in 2004. Dillon's hard-charging, inspired running helped the Patriots capture their third Super Bowl championship in four seasons.

"On behalf of the New England Patriots organization, we respect and appreciate Corey Dillon's significant contributions to our team," Belichick said in a statement. "Those contributions extend beyond his individual on-field achievements and his integral role in a championship season. They also include three years of veteran leadership and positive relationships throughout the team."

Dillon said last week that he asked the Patriots for his release and planned to retire. He left the door open to play in 2007, but said at the time the chances were slim. Dillon's agent, Steve Feldman, said he plans to field offers for Dillon. The Patriots save approximately $2.5 million of salary cap space with the move.

As for those players on the 2006 roster testing free agency, Graham met with the Broncos yesterday and will visit the Raiders today, then the Seahawks. Graham's agents, Jack and Tom Mills, refuted a radio report yesterday afternoon that Graham had already struck a deal with Denver.

Meanwhile, outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain visited the Rams yesterday. His agent, James Sims, said the Rams liked Banta-Cain's versatility as an outside linebacker in 3-4 packages and an end in a 4-3 alignment. Sims said the 49ers, Steelers, and Dolphins were among the other teams to express initial interest.

Back in New England, the Patriots reached a three-year, $2.1 million contract extension with fourth-year offensive lineman Billy Yates before the deadline to tender offers to restricted free agents. The deal included a $325,000 signing bonus. Yates could have been a target for a team seeking a lineman with starting experience without giving up compensation.

"In my 21 years as an agent, I've never had a team treat a player as well as the Patriots have treated Billy," said Steve Endicott, Yates's agent.

Endicott cited examples of when the team promoted Yates to the 53-man roster for Super Bowl XXXIX -- even though he was inactive -- so he could receive a full winner's share, as well as the team paying Yates a full salary ($425,000) last year despite him being on the practice squad.

The team also finalized a two-year deal with fullback Heath Evans, whose return became more important with Dillon out of the fold. The Patriots now have Laurence Maroney (under contract through 2010), Kevin Faulk (2009), and Evans (2008) at running back, and might consider adding another player at the position, hence the visit with Morris.

Also on the free agent front, the Patriots will have the first right of refusal with punter Todd Sauerbrun, which means if another team signs him, the Patriots can match the offer.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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