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What the return of Deion Branch means for the Patriots

10.11.10 at 11:04 pm ET
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The return of Deion Branch provides another trusted set of hands in the Patriots’€™ passing game for Tom Brady, and will also allow New England‘€™s younger receivers another year or two to mature in the system.

The 31-year-old Branch, who was taken by the Patriots in the second round of the 2002 draft and spent four seasons in New England, started slowly but quickly became a dependable presence in the Patriots’€™ passing game. After caching 43 and 57 balls his first two seasons with New England, he came of age in his third season. He had 35 receptions in the regular season that year, but had an 11-catch, 133-yard performance in Super Bowl XXXIX, earning him MVP honors and allowing him to be included in the conversation as one of the best young receivers in the league.

(That Super Bowl performance also cemented his rep as a big-game receiver ‘€” he also caught 10 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown in a Super Bowl XXXVIII win over Carolina, and his 21 receptions in those 2 games is an NFL record for reception in consecutive Super Bowls and the third highest total of career Super Bowl receptions by a single player.)

The 5-foot-9, 193-pounder was now ensconced as New England’€™s No. 1 receiver, and caught 78 balls for 998 yards and five touchdowns in 2005. But unhappy with his contract situation the following season, Branch sat out, and forced a trade to Seattle for a first-round pick in the 2007 draft, a choice that was eventually used on safety Brandon Meriweather.

Branch’€™s departure was bitter, and was a difficult pill to swallow in the New England locker room.

‘€œI don’€™t think any of us envisioned something like this happening,’€ said former teammate Richard Seymour after the trade was announced. ‘€œIt took the air out of me. It really did. When you look at Deion Branch, he embodies everything we want in a football player. Everything we talk about, the kind of guy we want on this football team, he did as good a job as anybody of embodying that.’€

Now, after five seasons in Seattle, Branch returns to his roots. He joins a New England receiving corps that has Wes Welker, Brandon Tate, Julian Edelman, Taylor Price and Matthew Slater. While there won’€™t be a traditional No .1 receiver like with Moss, the Patriots’€™ receiving corps will likely look an awful lot like it did through the earlier part of the decade ‘€” without a traditional big-play threat, New England will instead look to utilize more two tight end sets in an attempt to utilize short and intermediate routes in the passing game.

As for expectations this season, Branch ‘€” who hasn’€™t played a full 16-game season since leaving the Patriots ‘€” has dealt with his share of injuries, but has been a dependable presence this year for Seattle. According to Brian McIntyre of ‘€œMac’€™s Football Blog,’€ he was in on 83 percent (186 of the 224 offensive snaps) of the Seahawks’€™ offensive plays this season, and had 13 catches for 112 yards and a touchdown through four games this year. That, combined with his pre-existing knowledge of the New England’€™s intricate passing game, should allow him to step in and contribute immediately to the Patriots’€™ offense.

While his presence will cut into the playing time of some of New England’€™s younger receivers (namely Tate and Price), it buys some time for the Patriots’€™ younger receivers to continue to develop within the system. What he isn’€™t is a deep threat in the mold of Moss: His yards per catch average has steadily declined the last three-plus years, going from 13.7 in 2008 to 8.6 this season. (His career-high was 14.1 with the Patriots in 2003.)

Branch is signed through the 2011 season, and the Patriots are now responsible for almost $4 million in base salary this season, as well as the the  2011 season, for which he is owed$5.95 million in base salary.

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