THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Webster familiar with cover story

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / July 22, 2008

It's a different city and team, but the situation is strikingly similar. Jason Webster is just hoping for a happier ending than his first time around.

Last July in Buffalo, Webster was competing to answer one of the major questions facing the Bills: Who will replace top cornerback Nate Clements?

After Clements broke the bank in free agency with San Francisco, Webster won the job, but broke his forearm in the Bills' first game, ending his season.

Now Webster has brought his healthy forearm, helmet, and shoulder pads to New England in hopes of providing the answer to one of the more significant questions facing the Patriots: Who will replace top cornerback Asante Samuel?

So as the Patriots prepare for the start of training camp Thursday, Webster will draw strong parallels between his experiences in Buffalo and New England.

Perhaps the only difference: He was an early favorite for the Buffalo job. In New England, he's more of a sleeper.

No matter, because the 30-year-old Webster isn't stopping to assess his standing with the team, or the seemingly good news that he was running with many of last year's returning starters in spring minicamps, in place of the recovering Ellis Hobbs (groin, shoulder injuries).

He's just appreciative to be in the mix after a rough two years.

"It's like it was when I was a young boy and I just wanted to play, that is what I have here in my heart," he said. "I just want to play football, and that's what I've gotten back to after not being able to due to injuries and things. It's basically been a year and a half because I missed last season, and basically half of the season before that [with a torn groin]."

Likely with those injuries in mind, the Patriots and Webster agreed to a one-year, $819,000 contract in early March. The contract includes a lower salary if Webster becomes injured. On the flip side, Webster earned $76,000 in workout bonuses and also had $130,000 of his $730,000 base salary guaranteed.

The 5-foot-9-inch, 187-pound Webster entered the league in 2000 as a second-round draft choice of the 49ers and was considered a rising player, which led to a six-year, $18 million free agent contract with the Falcons in 2004.

Yet he took a downward spiral in his new home, partially because of injuries. When the Falcons released him in May 2007, the Associated Press wrote the club rid itself of a "high-priced flop on defense."

Things seemed to be turning around for Webster in Buffalo at this time last year - coach Dick Jauron lauded his work ethic and toughness - before injuries struck again. Some noted Webster's physical play, coupled with his size, might have contributed to his injuries. Webster now has a clean bill of health and with the Patriots' cornerback competition shifting into another gear with the start of training camp, he can expect to hear the question again:

Who will replace Asante Samuel?

It could be Webster, or fellow free agent signings Fernando Bryant or Lewis Sanders. Perhaps it will be second-round pick Terrence Wheatley, or fourth-rounder Jonathan Wilhite. Don't count out 2007 sixth-round draft choice Mike Richardson.

Just being part of the discussion is all Webster's asking for at this point. He said he's paid no attention to the Samuel chatter, and is focused on what he can control, such as becoming more communicative on the field - which is a bit different than his personality off the field.

"When you experience and go through things with injuries, you realize nothing is promised," he said. "My mind-set is that I'm not looking past today."

The Patriots signed third-round draft choices Shawn Crable and Kevin O'Connell to undisclosed contracts, leaving the club with just two unsigned rookies - linebacker Jerod Mayo (first round) and Wheatley. Messages for the representatives for Mayo and Wheatley were not returned yesterday. All rookies were scheduled to report to Gillette Stadium yesterday, with veterans due tomorrow.

The Patriots also signed 10-year veteran offensive tackle Anthony Clement and first-year receiver Chris Dunlap to undisclosed deals.

Counting Mayo and Wheatley, the Patriots have 79 players on their roster. NFL teams are allowed a maximum of 80 players in training camp.

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

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