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The approach is hands-off

His red noncontact jersey is a carryover effect from the offseason shoulder surgery that Laurence Maroney underwent. His red noncontact jersey is a carryover effect from the offseason shoulder surgery that Laurence Maroney underwent. (ESSDRAS M SUAREZ/GLOBE STAFF)

FOXBOROUGH -- In San Diego, running back LaDainian Tomlinson will not play a snap in the preseason, a decision designed to protect one of the Chargers' most valuable assets. Might the Patriots take the same approach with Laurence Maroney?

If they do, Maroney doesn't believe it will affect him come the regular season.

"I can definitely say I'd be ready to go if I didn't play in the preseason," he said.

The thought sheds light on one of the more important subplots through the first 21 practices of Patriots training camp: the management of Maroney's health.

After undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, Maroney has yet to pull on his regular No. 39 jersey, instead donning a red noncontact jersey. He did not play in the team's preseason opener last Friday night in Tampa and probably won't suit up this Friday against the Titans, the second of four preseason games.

Yesterday, when the Patriots were working on a physical inside running drill, Maroney did not participate. Yet in other drills, he is starting to do more.

How does he feel?

"The body is feeling good," he said. "I've been doing a bit more contact and it's just feeling real good. Hopefully -- you ask Bill [Belichick] because I don't know when -- I'll be out of the red sometime soon."

Yet the Patriots might be wise to adopt the Chargers' approach, and keep Maroney in red.

San Diego general manager A.J. Smith said the Chargers kept Tomlinson out of preseason games last year, and after seeing how he performed in the regular season -- a career-high 1,815 rushing yards -- they felt it was the right thing to do again.

"I'd never force an opinion on another club, but our feeling is that if he's going to get hit, let it be in a real game, then adjust," Smith explained. "We stop him from the collisions, but his practices are high-intensity. Each play, he'll finish it, going 60 yards at a full clip.

"We give him a little thumping every now and then, but he won't get that first big hit until the first game. Once he gets that over with, it's like riding a bike."

While Tomlinson and Maroney are not in the same class as players, their value to their teams is more similar.

The Patriots are relying on Maroney to carry a heavier workload than the 175 attempts and 745 yards he totaled in 2006.

So as he works his way toward a full recovery, is it worth exposing him to injury in the preseason? If Maroney had his choice, he would like a few carries before the Sept. 9 opener against the Jets.

"Hopefully, I do play," he said. "I can come out here and practice against the defense full go all day, but I don't think that amounts to game speed. Hopefully, I get a chance to play in preseason and get a chance to catch up with the speed of the game and live action.

"It's never easy to miss action. You always need that teaching. You can sit and watch film, come out and practice plays, but until you see it in real live action, that's when you get your work in."

Still, Maroney believes he could be at a top level if it goes in the other direction.

One line of thinking is that injuries can happen at any time -- as the Jets found out when starting running back Thomas Jones strained a calf in a blocking drill -- so holding a player out of preseason games could be viewed as overmanaging.

But Smith prefers to eliminate any chance of injury when possible, especially when it comes to a "mega-superstar" like Tomlinson.

"Our feeling is that you want to do what you have to do to get people ready, maybe a little action, but the preseason is mainly for the other players, to assess them," Smith said. "You want everybody healthy for the first game."

Smith cited an example from 1998, when Giants cornerback Jason Sehorn severely injured his knee in a preseason game on a kickoff return. And Patriots fans certainly remember 1989, when Andre Tippett, Ronnie Lippett, and Garin Veris were lost to season-ending injuries in the preseason finale.

Belichick said yesterday that getting players ready for the opener and a 16-game regular season -- and managing the contact they absorb -- is a balance that coaches must strike.

"You do it on an individual, case-by-case basis," he said.

In the case of Maroney, the question is whether some preseason snaps are worth it. He's prepared for either scenario.

"Every day I'm going to practice like I'm on call," Maroney said, "so when they put me in, I'm going to be ready."

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com

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