While the circumstances around the stunning trade of Randy Moss to his original franchise the Minnesota Vikings are still unfolding, New England Patriots fans can breathe a sigh of relief now that 2005 Super Bowl XXXIX MVP Deion Branch is back on the team. He will help out star wideout Wes Welker after being traded the other day from the (rebuilding) Seattle Seahawks back to the team that drafted him eight years ago for a 2011 fourth round pick.
As much welcomed as Branch is by Pats players and fans alike, no one should expect the same type of production from the 31-year-old that he attained in 2005 in his last season with the Pats (when he had 998 receiving yards, 5 touchdowns and 78 catches, all of which are career highs). Nor should anyone think he will replace the deep field threat Moss was these past few seasons in New England. Not even Branch thinks that will be his role.
The veteran wideout caught 190 passes and 15 touchdowns in four-plus seasons in Seattle, but parts of the last three were spent healing from knee, hamstring and foot injuries. In Seattle this season, he had only 13 receptions for 112 yards and one touchdown in four games to his name.
With so many new faces on offense in 2010, including pass-catching tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, along with Welker, Tom Brady’s most reliable target since arriving in 2007, there won’t be as many opportunities for Branch to make big plays as he had in his first stint here.
Therefore, only expect Branch to be an occasional deep threat, along with youngster (and special teams phenom) Brandon Tate for the rest of this season. The bulk of Branch’s catches will probably come in the short field (catching throws 15 or shorter yards from scrimmage, then running up the field).
Welker will still be Brady’s primary target, but Branch should be next in line, depending on how often Brady and head coach Bill Belichick run plays for him in comparison with the tight ends and especially Hernandez, who currently leads the Pats in receiving yards with 240.
Branch not replacing Moss on the long ball suits Brady and company just as well, as the latter has won three Super Bowls without the steady deep threat ability of a Randy Moss, Chad Ochocinco or other star wide receiver in his arsenal. Remember, Branch was the closest Brady got to that deep threat before Moss, but he wasn’t great at it, as he didn’t have the hands and accuracy in catching the deep ball that a Moss or Ochocinco had and still has.
All in all, it’s great to have Deion Branch back in New England, and Brady reportedly wanted it to happen as a Moss trade became imminent. But he’s not the same receiver he was several years ago. Still, the Pats are going to need this former MVP no matter what his role is, both on and off the field, as he is well regarded as a great locker room guy.
Branch is currently making around $5.5 million and is due nearly $6 million in 2011. Let’s just hope that when it comes time for contract talks, Branch doesn’t put up a stink like Moss did, and that he too did last time around with the Pats, and that he really does mean it when he says he is willing to “rework” his contract in order to stay “home” in New England. That verbal agreement is likely a good reason Belichick got him back here (in addition to urgently replacing Moss with a veteran body).
But first, Branch, who will wear #84 (since Welker has his old #83) has to make it through the whole season healthy, something he hasn’t done since 2006. If he doesn’t, all bets (and contract extension talks) are off on his future in New England.
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