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Samuel made up ground

Agreement allows cornerback to likely avoid franchise tag in 2008

FOXBOROUGH -- Asante Samuel's recovery skills are just as good off the field as they are on it.

The fifth-year Patriots cornerback, who finally signed his $7.79 million franchise tender yesterday, ended his de facto holdout by getting the team to include a provision in the deal that allows him to avoid being franchised again next season.

According to a source with knowledge of the negotiations, the dreadlocked defensive back can avoid the dreaded franchise label if he plays a certain amount of snaps (likely 75 percent) or the team wins a certain number of games. It's similar to what the Chicago Bears did with linebacker Lance Briggs, who balked at signing his franchise tender until the team included an out: If Briggs plays 75 percent of Chicago's defensive snaps, he can't be franchised next season.

Without the contract amendment, Samuel would have been looking at the same deal he's rejected since he was tagged in February. Speaking with the media yesterday for the first time since his return, Samuel would not confirm that he received any concessions. However, he continually alluded to an agreement being reached.

"Both sides are happy. We reached an agreement. It worked out fine," said Samuel, who missed a month of training camp. "Everybody is happy, that's what it all comes down to."

Coach Bill Belichick said it was good to have Samuel, who tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with 10 last season, back in the fold.

"I'm glad he's here," said Belichick. "I'm glad that we got things worked out. I'm looking forward to working with him. We drafted him four years ago and this will be his fifth year. He's been a very productive player for us. I'm glad it all got worked out."

Samuel was not present for the media portion of practice yesterday and was evasive when asked how long it would take him to get up to speed. The Patriots open the season Sept. 9 on the road against the New York Jets.

"I'll go out there and work hard and see where I'm at," he said.

Samuel, 26, worked out in Florida while he waited for a resolution to his contract situation, but acknowledged that his biggest challenge will be getting in football shape. He said he knows he has to earn his starting spot back at left corner.

"I've been here since my NFL career started. I think that's one advantage I have," he said. "I know the defense down, front, back, side to side. Hopefully, it will be to the advantage of me and I can fit right in."

Ultimately though, the Patriots aren't looking for Samuel to simply fit in. They're looking for him to stand out as he did last season, when he emerged as one of the top cornerbacks in the game, grabbing nine interceptions in the last nine games, including playoffs. But in his first three seasons, Samuel had eight interceptions, including two postseason picks. That led some to say Samuel was just trying to cash in on a career year with a long-term deal.

"I'm not getting into any contract talks or stuff like that, but fourth year, fifth year, that's usually your prime years," said Samuel, who had threatened to sit out until Week 10 once the July 16 deadline for franchise players to strike a long-term deal had passed. "I'm in those years and hopefully I can keep it going and hopefully I can do what I did last year and that would be great for all of us.

"You guys in the media or whoever ranks cornerbacks . . . I feel how I feel myself and that's all that really matters at the end of the day. I feel I'm one of the best in the NFL, and, you know, I've just got to go out and keep proving it.

"I'm a fourth-rounder. I come from the bottom. I made my name all on my own. Nothing was given to me, so I'm happy."

Signing the tender means a substantial salary increase for Samuel. He made $835,165 in the final year of his rookie deal. If he is tagged again next season, he would receive the greater of a 20 percent increase over the $7.79 million he will be paid this season ($9.348 million) and the new franchise figure for cornerbacks, which is the average of the top five highest-paid corners.

Samuel received support from his teammates while he was absent. He said that Rodney Harrison, Rosevelt Colvin, Eugene Wilson, Jarvis Green, and others stayed in touch with him.

"That's the toughest part," Samuel said. "You want to be out there with your teammates. You want to go out there and work hard with these guys, but you know business is business. You have to go out and handle your business. You know we play this game to support our families and take care of our kids and that's what is most important to me."

That's why, Samuel said, he has no regrets about the way he handled negotiations.

"I did what I felt that I needed to do," he said, "and we're happy and I'm here to play football."

Now that the Patriots and the defensive back have reached détente, the door can be reopened to keeping Samuel long term. He said he'd "love to be here for the rest of my career." But for now the sides have a win-win settlement.

"It's mutually beneficial," said Samuel's agent, Alonzo Shavers. "New England gets the player they want and Asante is happy with the way New England has treated him. The organization, we thank Mr. Kraft, management, Scott Pioli, and Bill Belichick. They did an excellent job bringing a resolution to this situation. Now we look forward to the pursuit of a championship."

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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