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McCrary boosts running game; Pats notes

The signing of Fred McCrary should provide a lift to Antowain Smith and the running game, at least that’s the way the Patriots new fullback sees it.

When the Patriots signed Rosevelt Colvin to a six-year contract worth almost $26 million last month, some believed it represented a change in free agent philosophy for the team. Since most of its previous singings were unheralded players looking to establish themselves as NFL starters, Colvin's arrival appeared to be a break from that approach.

Head Coach Bill Belichick and personnel chief Scott Pioli insisted from the start of their reign in New England that if the value for a player warranted a big-money deal, and their salary cap situation made it conducive, the Patriots would indeed be players in the market.

But don't think that just because the Patriots finally have some cap flexibility and broadened their attentions a bit that hungry, hard-working players have suddenly fallen off their radar screen.

Fullback Fred McCrary came aboard late last month without any of the fanfare Colvin received. He's been Foxborough working out with his teammates in the offseason program ever since. Judging from his comments, he appears to fit the mold of "Belichick-Pioli Guy" to a T.

"I'm not a person that really cares about running the ball or catching a ton of passes," McCray said after a workout on April 3. "I'm a role player and I know my role. My job is to go out there and bust my butt to open things up for Antowain [Smith]. If he's going well, I know I'm doing my job."

It's a job McCary did well in San Diego the past two seasons. While he's barely shown up in the Chargers statistics – he had 11 carries for 12 yards and 90 catches for 509 more in his four seasons with the team – McCrary was invaluable as LaDainian Tomlinson's lead blocker for the past two. Tomlinson burst on the scene as a rookie in 2001 and followed McCrary well in picking up 2,919 yards during their two years together.

The 6-0, 245-pounder will enter his seventh NFL season. At 31, he's two years older than Marc Edwards, the man he replaced. Edwards signed as a free agent with Jacksonville after carving out some space for Smith the last two seasons. His job description in the Patriots offense was larger than McCrary's in San Diego, but according to Belichick, that doesn't necessarily mean that will be the case in 2003.

"Marc hadn't had a lot of opportunities with the ball before he came here either," Belichick accurately pointed out in the latest issue of Patriots Football Weekly. "I don't think there's a dramatic difference [between the two]. McCrary's probably had more production in the kicking game but hasn't had as many opportunities to handle the ball as Marc has. Overall there are definitely a lot of similarities as far as their blocking skills and catching abilities are concerned."

McCrary isn't concerned with his carries or receptions. The only important thing in his mind is Smith's yardage total, which he believes is capable of increasing greatly.

"I came here and talked with Antowain already," McCrary said. "I told him, 'Let's get this thing back on track.' A lot of people are doubting him. I think we should try to make this his best season ever. I guess his best year was 1,157 yards. I told him we could do much better than that."

It remains to be seen how well the Smith-McCrary combination performs, but if first impressions count for anything the new fullback will be a hit. The personable veteran considers himself a team player and leader. He's clearly confident in his abilities but is much more comfortable talking about others – like former Chargers teammate Rodney Harrison, who recommended McCrary to the Patriots.

"You watch," he began calmly before becoming more animated as he continued. "Rodney wasn't healthy last year. He has a chip on his shoulder and he's healthy now. He wasn't right last year and that made him look bad. You watch Rodney this year and see the difference."

Patriots notes

The Patriots re-signed tackle Tom Ashworth Tuesday afternoon. The 25-year-old Ashworth was on the active roster for the entire 2002 season but participated in just one game. He was among the inactive players in the other 15 contests.

The 6-6, 305-pounder originally came to New England in 2001 as a member of the practice squad, where he spent 13-of-16 regular season games and the entire postseason. He made the roster out of training camp last year and will battle Kenyatta Jones, Adrian Klemm and Matt Knutson for a job in 2003. …

The Patriots were also awaiting word on Cedric Woodard, the defensive tackle from Seattle the team signed to an offer sheet late last week. The Seahawks have until Friday to decide whether or not to match the offer. Because the Seahawks gave Woodard a minimum-qualifying offer ($605,000 for a third-year player), the Patriots would owe Seattle a sixth-round draft choice as compensation (the round Woodard was originally drafted by Baltimore back in 2000) if the Seahawks failed to match. Attempts to reach Woodard's agent, Jordan Woy were unsuccessful.

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