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A valued return man

Well-traveled tight end Rivers ready to move into the Patriots' lineup

Marcellus Rivers, who figures to see a lot of action tomorrow in Miami, exemplifies the flexibility of the Patriots' offense. Marcellus Rivers, who figures to see a lot of action tomorrow in Miami, exemplifies the flexibility of the Patriots' offense. (ROBERT E. KLEIN/FOR THE GLOBE)

FOXBOROUGH - Marcellus Rivers is ready. That's part of surviving life near the bottom of the NFL food chain. You always have to be ready for anything, ready to be released, ready to be re-signed, ready to fill in, ready to step up.

The seventh-year tight end, who was signed by the Patriots Aug. 8, has been released and re-signed by them three times since then. But with starting tight end Benjamin Watson not practicing this week and listed as questionable for tomorrow's game in Miami after injuring his left ankle in last week's 48-27 win in Dallas, the only release Rivers figures to face now is the one he must execute to get out on pass patterns.

That's because the high-powered New England offense has employed the tight end heavily this season. Veteran Kyle Brady, the only other healthy true tight end on the roster, has played 72 percent of the offensive snaps, and Watson, who is second on the team with five touchdown catches, has played 65 percent. Among skill-position players who would be subject to substitution for non-injury reasons (which does not include quarterback Tom Brady), only Randy Moss (83 percent) has played a higher percentage of the snaps.

That means Rivers, who saw his first action of the season last week subbing for Watson, could be in for a heavy workload in Miami. The 6-foot-4-inch, 250-pounder said he can handle it if that's what the team needs.

"Yeah, I feel like I'm in shape to do that," said Rivers. "The only thing is getting used to the game speed. Last week was my first time back and game speed elevates from preseason to regular season to when you're making a playoff run, to the playoffs, and on up to the Super Bowl. I feel like I was behind on game speed.

"I'm doing a lot of different things in practice, not trying to take as many breaks when I'm doing scout team stuff, and now that I'm doing offense stuff still staying on top of that."

Playing significant snaps is not uncharted territory for Rivers. Although he didn't play in an NFL game last season after being cut by the Raiders in training camp and enjoying a December cup of coffee with the Saints, Rivers started five games with the Houston Texans in 2005. He caught a career-high 24 passes for 168 yards. After going undrafted after his career at Oklahoma State, Rivers spent four years with the New York Giants, starting six games in 2003 and three in 2004.

"It's nothing new," said Rivers. "Houston was the last place where I started and got a high dose of the snaps, anywhere from 40 or 50 snaps a game."

Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked if Rivers could handle the increased workload and pointed to Rivers's play in the preseason, when the Patriots were banged up at tight end, and Rivers ended up tied for the team lead in catches with nine for 100 yards and a score.

"I guess until he does it we won't know the answer to that for sure," said Belichick. "But he has done it for us. He's done it this year. In those preseason games . . . I doubt there are many players who played more than him. Let's put it that way. [Kyle] Brady didn't play. Ben missed a couple. Dave [Thomas] was out. He got a lot of snaps in those preseason games relative to a lot of other players who had other people at their position and they split up some of those reps."

Rivers said the benefit of those snaps was that it quickened his acclimation to the offense. He was familiar with the Patriots' system because he played in a similar one in 2004 with the Giants. New York's offensive coordinator that year was John Hufnagel, who was New England's quarterbacks coach in 2003.

And any assistance he needs has come from his fellow tight ends, who have embraced Rivers.

"We meet as a group and we talk things out and make sure we're all sharp on things, and if it's something I picked up on that they didn't pick up on, I'll let them know and vice versa," said Rivers.

Rivers said he was never frustrated by the Patriots' yo-yo roster moves with him, the strangest of which had to be when he was re-signed Oct. 3 to replace Thomas, whose season was ended by a foot injury, and then released Oct. 6 to make way for the activation of safety Rodney Harrison, only to be re-signed four days.

"I love being here, man. This is my family away from my family," said Rivers, who turns 29 next Friday. . "My wife [Latasha] and three kids are back home in Texas and everybody here is like family. I really enjoyed being here and when I got the opportunity to come back, I couldn't wait. I was excited."

So, Rivers remains ready to replace Watson, whether he gets the call or not.

"It didn't matter whether he went down or if he was just tired. It's like, 'OK, where do you need me?' " Rivers said. "That's my job to come in every week and get as prepared as I can as far as looks, and get all those mental reps and go through stuff in my head and in books and watching film to whereas if something does happen, I'll be ready to go."

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

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