FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Cornerback Asante Samuel returned to the New England Patriots on Monday, moving closer to ending a contract dispute that had cost him a month of the preseason.
Samuel, who tied for the NFL lead with 10 interceptions last season, was at Gillette Stadium taking a physical on Monday, coach Bill Belichick said.
But he did not practice, and Belichick said it was too soon to know if the fifth-year veteran would play in Thursday's preseason finale against the New York Giants. The Patriots open the regular season Sept. 9 against the New York Jets.
"We'll take it day by day, like anything else," Belichick said
Samuel was not available for comment Monday. Glenn Toby, the senior vice president at the agency that represents him, said a deal had not been finalized by Monday afternoon.
"We're trying to get to the finish line," Toby said. "The ink is not dry yet."
The Patriots applied the franchise tag to Samuel in February, guaranteeing him a one-year, $7.79 million contract but preventing him from becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Samuel missed much of training camp when he and the team failed to agree on a long-term contract by the July 17 deadline. After that date, he could only re-sign with the Patriots for one year.
Toby and Samuel's agent, Alonzo Shavers, declined to say whether the Patriots had gotten Samuel to report by promising they would not apply the franchise tag to him again next year.
The Chicago Bears struck a similar deal with franchised linebacker Lance Briggs, who had threatened his own holdout. The Bears agreed not to franchise Briggs again if he plays in 75 percent of their defensive snaps this season.
Samuel's return bolsters a Patriots defense that set a franchise scoring record last year and added prized free-agent linebacker Adalius Thomas in the offseason.
"I'm happy he's here," starting cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. "He brings maturity to the defense, an understanding of what we do and how we do it in our system."
The Patriots' starting defense has been sharp in the preseason. Last Friday, despite missing starting defensive ends Richard Seymour and Ty Warren, New England limited Carolina's offensive starters to three-and-outs on three of the Panthers' first four possessions.
Cornerback Randall Gay had replaced Samuel in the starting lineup alongside Hobbs. Veteran free agent Tory James and rookie first-round draft pick Brandon Meriweather were the top reserves with Meriweather making a smooth transition from safety, his primary position at Miami.
"I think we're ready for anything Bill throws at us," Hobbs said. "Whatever ideas he has about the rotation or when they feel the need to put (Samuel) in (to the starting lineup), our main goal has been to practice without Asante.
"It's really all on him, how well does he adapt to us and get back into the swing of things, because we're still moving."
Samuel, a fourth-round draft pick in 2003 out of Central Florida, has started 39 games for the Patriots. He tied Denver's Champ Bailey for the NFL lead in interceptions during the 2006 regular season and then returned two more for touchdowns in the playoffs.
Samuel reportedly has been working out on his own in Florida.
"It's one thing to be in shape, it's another to be in football shape," Hobbs said. "Obviously, that's what he needs -- time, time to get ready. He's going to get that and then let's get rolling."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press