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Receivers start to get a grasp

Patriots establish pecking order

FOXBOROUGH -- It was one of the top questions entering Patriots training camp: With 12 receivers on the roster, who would make the cut?

While there are no answers after just nine practices, the picture has certainly become much clearer. There are now front-runners. Some have fallen behind the pack. Others have been held out of the race because of injuries.

Yesterday's practice added another twist, with Randy Moss leaving midway through and having a wrap placed on what appeared to be his left hamstring. Moss did not return, heading to the locker room as the team continued practice.

Surely, the Patriots hope Moss won't be sidelined for long, as he had become, as expected, a central figure in the receiving corps.

Moss has been superb, taking repetitions with the top unit from the get-go. His emergence has headlined a clear pattern. It's been Moss, Wes Welker, and Jabar Gaffney leading the way, with Reche Caldwell and Kelley Washington next in line.

While some of the precamp chatter focused on how Moss might fit into the Patriots' way of doing things -- he did once say, "I play when I want to play" -- not to be overlooked is what his presence could mean to the offense. His size (6 feet 4 inches, 210 pounds) and effortless strides have not been matched by another Patriot since Bill Belichick was hired as coach in 2000, which will give them a potentially lethal vertical element through the air.

While he isn't always leading the charge in sprints and laps, Moss has practiced hard. Yesterday, he and Brady were sizzling, with one of Moss's best catches coming on a route over the middle, on a tight throw with Randall Gay in coverage.

Moss signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract after his trade this offseason -- the deal can be worth more with incentives -- and one line of thinking was that the Patriots could simply cut him if he became a distraction. That doesn't even appear to be on the radar.

Meanwhile, Welker has quickly emerged as the top player in the slot. He figures to benefit from the attention paid to Moss outside, which should open space on underneath routes, something that has been in evidence on the practice fields. The 5-9, 185-pound Welker isn't as smooth a route runner as Deion Branch, but like Branch, he has a knack for getting open in tight spaces.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise has been Gaffney. If there is one player who has taken advantage of free agent signee Donte' Stallworth opening camp on the physically unable to perform list, it's Gaffney.

"He had a great offseason, and he's having a real good camp," Belichick acknowledged. "He's showed up and made plays out there every day."

The 6-1, 200-pound Gaffney had back-to-back 100-yard receiving games in the playoffs last season, but that didn't make him feel more secure this year, his second with the Patriots. He watched as the team brought in four receivers -- Moss, Welker, Stallworth, and Washington -- and knew he'd be part of a spirited competition.

"We're a deep and talented group," Gaffney said. "It's important to come out here every day and do something that stays in the coaches' minds."

Gaffney seems to have done that more consistently than the 6-foot, 210-pound Caldwell, who led the Patriots with 61 receptions last season. But Caldwell has shown flashes of late, most recently hauling in a long pass from Matt Cassel Tuesday evening, a catch that came against double coverage and required ultimate concentration.

Then there is Washington, who chose to sign with the Patriots instead of the Dolphins in the offseason, figuring the chance to catch passes from Brady was the ticket to jump-starting a career that had sputtered after four years in Cincinnati.

The 6-3, 215-pound Washington hasn't been as noticeable in the receiving department, but his other skills shouldn't be overlooked. Any receiver lower on the depth chart must have added value in other areas.

"The more things you bring to the table, the better," he said. "That's what I'm trying to do -- play special teams, block, and make plays. I just want them to use everything, and hopefully, they will."

On the injury front, Stallworth, Chad Jackson, and Troy Brown remain on the physically unable to perform list, so they have some catching up to do. That might be a bit tougher for Stallworth -- a highly publicized free agent -- than Brown, who knows the system well.

Second-year man Kelvin Kight might see some more repetitions if Moss is sidelined in the coming days, which could give him a chance to beat the odds and earn a roster spot. Others in that category include second-year return man Bam Childress and young free agent signees C.J. Jones and Chris Dunlap.

With the Patriots scheduled for their 10th and 11th practices today, Belichick is reminding players at all positions that the clock is starting to tick a little louder.

Will the receiver race stay on its current course, or is there a change ahead?

"Now is where the competition really comes up for everybody, because it's about consistency," Belichick said. "Everybody is a little tired, right in the middle of two-a-days. We have a long way to go and now we start seeing who can come out and perform and produce day after day, in a difficult environment. It's a good time to evaluate your team, your players."

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

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