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A Tate-measure game?

Patriots returner may stretch his legs at receiver

By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / October 15, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — You know Brandon Tate as the speedy kickoff returner for the Patriots.

On Sunday, many will be getting to know Tate from a different perspective. On special teams, he attracts attention as he zips through lanes on kick returns. However, as a wide receiver, Tate has been in the shadows. With Randy Moss in Minnesota, there are plenty of guesses about how Tate will fit in with the Patriots’ offense.

In the flood of analysis after the Moss trade last week, Tate’s name floated to the top of the speculation heap as the next-best deep threat for the Patriots. CBS analyst Phil Simms doesn’t see Tate as a replacement for Moss but, like many, he hasn’t focused much on Tate as a receiver.

“Apparently, there is some belief there that he can absolutely fill some of that role,’’ said Simms. “I have been told he is a tremendous route runner. I judged him more in college.

“But I’m sure he will be under the microscope the next couple of weeks.’’

The door seems to be open for the Patriots to mix and match their skilled offensive players into any game plan that suits Tom Brady. Tate, who is 6 feet 1 inch and 195 pounds, has the speed to break away from defenders, but it remains to be seen whether that is the best way to utilize the 23-year-old. Tate has 11 receptions for 135 yards, which ranks third on the Patriots behind Wes Welker (26 catches, 217 yards) and Aaron Hernandez (18 catches, 240 yards).

This week, Brady said he was not looking for one player to replace Moss.

“I don’t ever feel like I’m out there hamstrung by the guys that are out on the field, and I haven’t felt that for a long time,’’ Brady said. “I think the thing that’s great is that they can do some different things. Wes can do quite a few things as a route runner, so can Deion [Branch], so can Brandon, so can Aaron, so can [Rob] Gronkowski, so can Julian [Edelman].’’

If the Patriots are looking for Tate to be more involved in that rotation, he is prepared to handle the duties. Tate is in his second season, but this is his first with a healthy set of knees. The Patriots scooped him up in the third round of the 2009 draft out of the University of North Carolina. A torn anterior cruciate ligament in his last college season was believed to have contributed to his drop in the draft.

Tate needed all of the preseason and a few games into his rookie year to rehab his knee, but he suffered a setback after two games when he injured it again. He missed the rest of the 2009 season. Even though Tate didn’t have many chances to prove himself, he remained confident.

“Just being patient about waiting my turn and doing all I could do to get back on the field as soon as possible,’’ he said.

Tate benefited from being able to fully participate in offseason workouts and training camp this season. Tate, who compiled an NCAA-record 3,523 kick return yards in college, has become a critical part of the Patriots’ return unit, returning two kickoffs for touchdowns this season.

“When he had that injury, it was the worst a football player could get,’’ said UNC wide receivers coach Charlie Williams. “For him to be playing like he’s playing now, it looks like he hasn’t missed a beat. When you see him run those kickoffs back, it looks like the Brandon Tate we knew.’’

At UNC, Tate was involved in the offense in a variety of ways, from running reverses to gadget plays, Williams said.

“He is fast and quick,’’ Williams said. “He is fast running in a straight line. I couldn’t tell you his 40 time, but he’s football fast, and there’s a difference. He has exceptional vision on the field. He can stop on a dime and leave you some change.’’

When Tate watches film of his returns, he doesn’t see the speed that everyone else attaches to his skill set. There are times when he watches himself and feels like he isn’t moving.

“I don’t feel like I’m slow,’’ Tate said. “But if it’s you, you don’t really [see it]. Everybody else sees it, but you’re thinking, ‘This dude might catch me.’ But everybody else is like, ‘You’re going fast, you’re going fast.’ ’’

Tate was utilized in a few different ways during training camp, and he will wait and see how he fits into the lineup Sunday against the Ravens.

As the attention turns more to Tate as a receiver, Williams said there will be plenty to watch.

“They’re going to get the opportunity to see the more he plays, the better he’s going to get,’’ Williams said. “He’s going to make the best of every opportunity. That’s just how he is.’’

Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com.

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