FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – Corey Dillon says there’s room for both him and rookie first-round pick Laurence Maroney in the New England Patriots’ backfield.

“There’s no competition,” Dillon said of what is expected to be a battle for the team’s starting running back job. “We’re here to help the team win, period. I don’t care who’s in there, me or him.”

Quarterback Tom Brady returned to practice Tuesday after skipping three straight practices over the previous two days. Coach Bill Belichick declined to discuss Brady’s absence.

Whatever the reason, Dillon said he was pleased to see Brady under center again.

“Hey, (number) 12, that’s my guy,” Dillon said. “When 12’s out there, everything’s good. It was nice to have him back.”

Plagued by injuries last season, Dillon missed three games, failed to register a carry in two others and gained just 733 yards. That slump prompted the team to use the 21st pick in the draft on Maroney, who left Minnesota after his junior year as the school’s second all-time leading rusher.

After adjusting his offseason training, Dillon said he is healthy and fitter than he was in 2005, when he averaged a career-low 3.5 yards per carry and had a long gain of only 29 yards.

Dillon said he has dropped 4 pounds from last season, down to 231, and can see the difference already.

“You feel lighter, you feel better,” he said. “You recover better. The heavier you get, the more problems you tend to have. This offseason, that was my whole goal – just trying to get a little leaner and a little stronger.”

Even if he isn’t the starter, Maroney is expected to ease some of the burden on Dillon, who turns 32 in October. Nevertheless, Dillon said it was “realistic” to think that he could duplicate the career-high 345 carries he had in 2004, when he rushed for a franchise-record 1,635 yards.

“If that’s the case, I can handle the load,” Dillon said. “That’s what I’ve been beating myself down (in the offseason) in order to do, if necessary. But, hey, we’ve got a lot of talent around here. I don’t think anybody has to jump through a wall.”

Both runners have looked sharp in training camp. That’s good news for an offense that could use some.

Despite Brady’s return, the Patriots are still without several key pieces.

Leading receiver Deion Branch’s holdout entered its fifth day Tuesday. Receivers Chad Jackson, a second-round draft pick, and Bam Childress practiced for the first time after starting training camp on the physically unable to perform list.

Left tackle Matt Light, coming off a season-ending leg injury, has been held out of several practices, while center Dan Koppen still hasn’t returned from offseason shoulder surgery. Tight end Dan Graham and rookie fullback Garrett Mills also have yet to take the field.

Dillon, on the other hand, has been a regular at practice.

“Don’t count on me getting a day off anytime soon,” Dillon said with a laugh. “But it’s going to work out for me because I’m going to be stronger and better. It’s going to pay off in the end.”


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