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Patriots notebook

Happy return route for Gaffney

Veteran receiver finds comfort zone

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / June 8, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH - The question was about the phone call he received from the Patriots in the offseason. Jabar Gaffney didn’t even need to hear the whole thing. He smiled so wide its seemed like he had been waiting on that call since he left New England in 2009.

When he was released by the Redskins last month, the door opened. Then, the phone rang. Bill Belichick was on the other end.

“It’s one of the only places I’d like to be,’’ he said. “I loved it here during my time, and when I got cut and Coach Belichick called and told me that we could work it out, this is where I wanted to be.’’

In three seasons with the Patriots, Gaffney emerged as a versatile and reliable option, playing all three receiver spots and becoming one of Tom Brady’s go-to guys.

Even when he left, he had thoughts about returning. When the Patriots faced the Redskins last December, Gaffney said he and Donte’ Stallworth, another receiver who’s come full circle with the Patriots this offseason, pondered the possibility. Now they’re together in a pack of wideouts jockeying for spots.

“We had a few conversations that week,’’ Gaffney said. “But that was it, and it just so happened that we’re both back here now and hopefully we can both contribute this year.’’

Gaffney’s free agency in 2009 coincided with Josh McDaniels leaving to become head coach of the Broncos. He signed a four-year contract with Denver, but was traded to the Redskins two years into it.

“It was real tough,’’ Gaffney said. “It was a decision that had to be made, and I wanted to stay, but with Josh going there it was like I was taking a piece of the Patriots with me. I’m just glad that it worked out and I was able to return.’’

While in New England, Gaffney had the golden ticket: Brady’s trust. He caught 85 passes for 1,059 yards and eight touchdowns in three seasons, developing into a reliable third option behind Randy Moss and Wes Welker.

Before they faced the Redskins last December, Brady sang Gaffney’s praises, saying he was “bummed’’ when Gaffney left for Denver.

“We have a great relationship on and off the field,’’ Gaffney said. “On the field we just have that rapport with each other. He knows where I’m going to be and I know he’s going to put it right there. So I have all the confidence in him and he has all the confidence in me and that’s a great thing.’’

Last season was his 10th in the league and also his best statistically (68 catches, 947 yards, five touchdowns), and he did it with Rex Grossman throwing him the ball. Being back with Brady, he said, is like riding a bike.

“We picked right back up and got out there and got to work and started building that relationship back up again,’’ Gaffney said.

In the trenches

When the Patriots signed Dan Connolly to a three-year, $10 million contract in March, it appeared to give the 29-year-old lineman some security, but also foreshadowed the end of center Dan Koppen’s nine-year run in New England.

Then, the Patriots re-signed Koppen.

Last year, Connolly took Koppen’s job and ran with it after Koppen broke his leg in the season opener, and even though it feels like the center spot is his to lose, especially after signing his deal, Connolly said he’s treating it like an open competition.

“Of course it feels good for somebody to want me that much,’’ Connolly said. “But same case every year, I’ve got to still go out and prove myself, I’ve got to compete for a job, nothing’s just going to be given to me. Whatever it is, it’ll show itself after training camp.’’

Connolly said the front office never discussed its intentions for Koppen with him, but that he wasn’t surprised they decided to bring back one of the mainstays on the line. The relationship between the two during OTAs didn’t change.

Connolly was probably buoyed by the Patriots giving Koppen little guaranteed money on his two-year deal.

“It’s always the same in the locker room,’’ Connolly said. “In the offseason we bring in 20-something guys. Everybody’s competing for five spots. So competition’s not a foreign thing to us. You can’t live your life being enemies with guys just because you’re competing for the same job. We’re all friends and we get along and we know it’s part of the business.”

Having them both gives the Patriots flexibility. Should guards Brian Waters or Logan Mankins have health issues, Connolly has the experience to play guard while Koppen plays center. Connolly said he’s comfortable wherever he ends up on the line.

Mayo stays focused

Entering the first season of the five-year deal he signed in December, Jerod Mayo’s approach hasn’t changed. “Try to go out there and lead by example and get better each and every week,’’ the middle linebacker said. Last year, the Patriots were the AFC’s worst defense, and the agenda since the draft has been to improve. Six of the Patriots seven picks were on the defensive side of the ball, including first-round picks Chandler Jones (an end) and linebacker Dont’a Hightower, with whom Mayo has spent time studying film. “He understands everything I’m trying to say,’’ Mayo said. “That’s the fortunate thing about that - having guys who are true football guys.’’ . . . The Patriots signed tight end Bo Scaife, and released defensive lineman Markell Carter, tight end Nick Melillo, and offensive lineman Jon Opperud.

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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