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As the Patriots turn

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – This was just minicamp, but the New England Patriots showed signs of being in mid-season form.

Coach Bill Belichick was saying nothing and pretty boy quarterback Tom Brady was happy to be immersed in football rather than thinking about his name being dragged through the tabloids.

Asked three times about disgruntled cornerback Asante Samuel, Belichick consistently refused to answer.

"We're coaching the guys that are here," Belichick said.

After a busy offseason of free agent signings, trades and the NFL draft, the Patriots are the popular choice to win the Super Bowl this season. After their narrow loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC title game left them just short of vying for a fourth Super Bowl win in six years, the Patriots brought in heralded veterans such as linebacker Adalius Thomas and wide receivers Randy Moss and Donte' Stallworth.

However, on the periphery of all the excitement created by those moves are some troublesome issues. Samuel, who was tagged as the team's franchise player in February to effectively keep him off the free agent market, said he doesn't plan to join the franchise until he gets a new contract or after the first 10 weeks of the season. That would be just in time to give him credit for a season and get him to free agency.

Whether it's real, Samuel's threat is reminiscent of the contract dispute the Patriots were involved in last year with wide receiver Deion Branch. That dispute was so ugly that Branch missed training camp and was ultimately traded to the Seattle Seahawks. While many people discounted Branch's value, the moves this offseason to get Moss, Stallworth and fellow receivers Wes Welker and Kelley Washington speak much louder about what Branch's absence meant last year.

"I wouldn't say anybody is worried right now about this stuff," said a Patriots player who requested anonymity for fear of the wrath of Belichick. "You have to think right now that (Samuel) is just bluffing over the money, but the whole situation with (Branch) last year makes guys nervous. Everybody knows around here that if you get ugly with the team over money, management is going to draw the line.

"Maybe they'll give in on it a little this year because it's so obvious to everyone that we're loading up. But nobody knows for sure … Hey, some may not think that Asante is as good as his stats showed last year, but he knows how to play in our system and that's important."

Samuel was not the lone defensive back missing from action. First-round pick Brandon Meriweather, the former University of Miami safety, is nursing a shoulder injury. It's probably not severe enough to keep him out of training camp.

Still, between Samuel and Meriweather, that's half of a projected starting secondary – a unit that took a pretty strong beating in the second half of the AFC title game against the Colts.

Samuel had a career-high 10 interceptions last season, his fourth as a starter. That doesn't include an interception return for a touchdown in the first half against Indianapolis, when Samuel made a great move and read against quarterback Peyton Manning.

As for Meriweather, his speed is considered crucial to the Patriots and their pass defense.

Still, that news didn't overwhelm the general positive nature of the day. Particularly for Brady, who initially was uncomfortable when asked about his private life. He eventually steered his answer toward being on the field.

"I'm very happy to be part of this team. I'm very happy to be the quarterback here, to be out here in the middle of June throwing passes to all these guys out here," Brady said. "I don't have any complaints about my life or what I'm doing or how excited I am to be here working out and playing for the New England Patriots."

That said, Brady has had to deal with more than his usual share of attention this offseason. In February, Brady made front-page news when it was revealed that he and former girlfriend Bridget Moynihan are expecting a child.

Although he wasn't asked directly about Moynihan – it was more of an open-ended query about the difficulty of leading a celebrity life in the aftermath of news last week that New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez was spied entering a hotel with a woman who was not his wife – Brady certainly knew what was implied.

"I just think it's all about money … that's what it comes down to," Brady said of dealing with the many media outlets that talk about celebrities. "You just try to go through your life and learn and grow and mature as you experience things. You have your happy moments that moments you learn from.

"I think the only hard part is when you bring your family into it. There's part of my life that's public, but my family is not part of that. That's been the difficult part, when people say things about your family and you really have no control over that."

That said, the attention doesn't figure to decrease anytime soon. Moynihan, who dated Brady for three years, is due in August, shortly after Brady is set to report for training camp with New England.

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