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Samuel will sign $7.79 million contract as franchise player

Franchise cornerback Asante Samuel, who has missed all of training camp and the first three preseason games, reported to the New England Patriots on Monday and will sign the one-year tender worth $7.79 million.

A four-year veteran will attempt to reclaim his starting job, but likely will have to pass the strenuous conditioning test administered by coach Bill Belichick to all players before working out with his teammates.

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, quoted by The Associated Press. "The ink
is not dry yet."

Earlier Monday, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, at a regular daily media briefing Monday at the team's camp in Foxborough, Mass., said: "It's always good to have all your players available."

Belichick declined to comment on whether Samuel would play in the Patriots' preseason finale Thursday
against the visiting New York Giants.

"We'll take it day by day, like anything else," Belichick
said.

The Providence Journal reported Monday that Samuel flew to the Boston area Sunday night after having spent most of the offseason in Florida.

It is not certain what Samuel accomplished with his absence from camp. Unless the Pats agreed to stipulate that they will not use the franchise marker on him again next spring, as the Chicago Bears did with franchise linebacker Lance Briggs, the cornerback will not have made a significant statement by staying away.

New England, it is believed, is opposed to forfeiting its right to use the franchise tag on Samuel again in 2008. 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, according to the AP.

The emphasis for now will likely focus on getting Samuel ready for the start of the regular season. New England opens the year at the New York Jets on Sept. 9.

"I'm excited to have all our players back. Asante is great
player, but you can't win unless you have them all," Patriots
owner Bob Kraft said at a team kickoff party Monday night.

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," Patriots starting cornerback Ellis 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."

The NFL Network reported last Thursday evening that Samuel was expected to sign the one-year tender for a franchise-designated cornerback and to report to the Patriots sometime before the team's final preseason game. The consensus around the league has been that Samuel, who earned only minimum base salaries the first three years of his NFL career, would find it difficult to ignore a one-year deal for nearly $8 million.

Earlier in the spring, Samuel suggested he would hold out for the first 10 weeks of the year before reporting and earning an accrued season that might make him eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring if the Patriots opted not to use the franchise marker again.

Samuel, 26, is the last of the league's seven franchise players this year who has yet to come to a contract agreement.

Three of the players -- Indianapolis defensive end Dwight Freeney (six years, $72 million), New Orleans defensive end Charles Grant (seven years, $63 million) and Detroit defensive tackle Cory Redding (seven years, $49 million) -- signed long-term contracts. In addition to Briggs, Cincinnati defensive end Justin Smith ($8.64 million) and Seattle kicker Josh Brown ($2.078 million) signed their one-year tenders. Neither Brown nor Smith elicited from his team a stipulation precluding use of the franchise tag again in 2008.

A fourth-round pick in the 2003 draft, Samuel has appeared in 59 games and started in 39 of them, including 15 starts in each of the past two seasons. The former Central Florida star has 188 tackles, 16 interceptions, 43 passes defensed and three forced fumbles.

He emerged as one of the NFL's top cornerbacks in 2006 but still is not viewed in the same class as some of the highest-paid coverage defenders in the league.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer at ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.