By David J. Cohen
The Patriots have given disgruntled WR Deion Branch permission to seek a trade with another team. This comes after weeks of failed contract negotiations between the Pats and Branch. This includes two denied offers from the Patriots: the first, a 3-year deal worth $18.75 million with $8 million guaranteed; the second, a 5-year extension worth $31 million. Branch has until September 1st to find a deal elsewhere.This is a huge development for a team that has been criticized for having a tight wallet this off-season. The Pats let longtime Patriot LB Willie McGinest go to Cleveland despite a lack of depth and McGinest’s incredible play last year given his age. Big Willie was 4th among all linebackers at making tackles which prevented successful plays (gaining 40% of needed yards on 1st down, 60% of needed yards on 2nd down, and the first down on 3rd down) and was the best linebacker in the NFL last year at defending the pass. Without McGinest and without addressing his loss, the Pats are in trouble this year if any of their starting linebackers (Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Junior Seau, and Roosevelt Colvin) go down for any extended period of time this year. If that happens, the Pats will have to rely on Ryan Claridge, Tully Banta-Cain, and Monty Beisel to fill in. Like I said, the starters better stay healthy. It is unlikely Vrabel will be playing in any goal-line offensive sets this year.
The Patriots were also hammered for letting perhaps the most clutch kicker in NFL history, K Adam Vinatieri leave because his $3 million asking price was too much. They will now rely on rookie K Stephen Gostkowski to deliver. It could be worse: if they didn’t draft a kicker, there was a good chance K Martin Gramatica would be in New England. Hello Mr. Gostkowski.
In another financial saver, the Pats let #2 WR David Givens leave for Washington, since they did not want to pay a lot for a 2nd wide-out. Letting him go was partly if not heavily predicated on the fact that New England was to re-sign Deion Branch to a long-term deal. Givens had a productive year and could be the Redskins go-to guy this season. If the Pats could go back in time, they would probably have kept Givens and have him as their top man.
If the Pats lose Branch, they are extremely short at wide-out. Without a replacement, the #1 WR role would likely be handed to newly acquired WR Reche Caldwell, who has underachieved so far in his career with San Diego. Old timer WR Troy Brown would be the #2 WR and the only reliable target on the team. He continues to produce, averaging 11.9 yards per catch and catching 66% of catches thrown to him. He was the 19th most valuable receiver in the league when on the field last year. After Brown, the most experienced WR on the roster is WR Eddie Berlin, who is a speed threat but sat on the bench last year in Tennessee, who had the worst WR core of any team in the league for a majority of the year. A lot of pressure would rest on the hands of former University of Florida WR Chad Jackson, who set the turf on fire at the NFL combine with an unofficial 40 yard dash under 4.2 seconds. If he can pick up the system early, he would be the replacement for Branch by the end of the year. However, this is a lot to ask of a rookie, and especially a wide-out from Florida, a school that hasn’t produced a great receiver in the NFL in 7 years. Here’s the list of Florida wide-outs who have played in the NFL who are still in the league in that time frame: Ike Hilliard, Jabar Gaffney, Reche Caldwell, Taylor Jacobs, and Travis Taylor. The story of each of these players is the same: each has talent but has underachieved in the NFL. The Pats hope Jackson breaks the trend.
Obviously the Pats, if they look to make another Super Bowl run, may want to insist on getting a quality receiver in return for Branch. Based on new rules passed by the NFL, teams no longer have to take a cap hit in the current year for trading players. This is why there has been a noticeable increase in man-for-man trades. Many teams would be interested in Branch, but the real question is which teams could give someone of good value back to the Patriots. There are several that provide interesting scenarios. Looking for an established but young receiver would be the best route for New England. An unlikely scenario but the one that would net the most value would be trading Branch to the Bengals for WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who is more than capable of being a #1 in this league. He has been a better receiver than Branch each of the last 2 years. He was the 11th most valuable receiver 2 years ago and the 9th this year, being the best #2 WR in the league in each year. There is WR Andre Johnson in Houston, and while he is a great WR the trade for Branch would bring some positive buzz to a Texan team being blasted constantly for passing on RB Reggie Bush. They could contact Miami and attempt to pick up WR Chris Chambers, who is explosive but terribly inconsistent. They could ask the Jets about WR Laveranues Coles, another solid receiver, but trading Branch in the division could be out of line. They could contact Tennessee and try to get WR Drew Bennett. They could also call the Giants and perhaps ask for WR Plaxico Burress, which would likely cause the most headlines of any possible scenario.
If they are indeed looking to match talent and potential, the most likely scenario would be to trade Branch to the Raiders for WR Jerry Porter, who wants out of Oakland. Porter wants to be a #1 WR and he would likely land that role in New England. Now, I don’t think he’s of that caliber, but the Pats may take him if he’s the best available man.
Things change if the Pats compromise a young receiver for a solid veteran to help win now. Then all kinds of options open up. The Ravens and WR Derrick Mason are an option, even though it is unlikely Baltimore would trade him away considering how great he and QB Steve McNair have been together in their careers. There is Dallas and WR Terry Glenn, who would return to his old team. If this happened, Sportscenter would run a daily 1-hour show on the Cowboys. There is WR Eddie Kennison in Kansas City, who has been great and underrated. There is WR Keenan McCardell in San Diego (see Eddie Kennison). Rounding out this group is WR Joey Galloway in Tampa, who enjoyed a career resurgence last year.
Yet there are other scenarios, and it is in this tier that more likely trades present themselves. An intriguing and very possible scenario would be Branch going to the Packers for WR Donald Driver, a severely underrated receiver in Green Bay. He is the kind of player the Patriots seem to find: great value at a solid price. The Pats never pay any player more than what they deem is their value, and thus are not going to give into Branch’s demands. Branch is a solid NFL receiver, but is overrated because of his outstanding Super Bowl MVP performance. Driver was the 13th best receiver 2 years ago and 5th last season. As far as the Patriots team is concerned, Driver would be the ideal acquisition. There is also tremendous pressure on the Packers and Brett Favre to deliver something this year, which would further encourage this trade. Jacksonville may be the most eager in trying to get Branch, desperately needing a playmaker at receiver. WR Ernest Wilford is a terrific possession target and may evolve into the next Keyshawn Johnson, but he needs a compliment alongside him. Currently the Jags are counting on converted QB Matt Jones to emerge as that player. It would be interesting to see if the Pats would be interested in perhaps acquiring Wilford for Branch, since Jackson would be the speed guy. Minnesota is perhaps in even more dire straits after WR Koren Robinson violated the league’s substance abuse policy again, likely sidelining him for the year. Currently WR Troy Williamson is their top receiver. If the Pats are looking at the future, they could trade for Williamson, setting up a potentially dynamic duo of Williamson and Jackson for the future. The Eagles will also be among the teams pursuing Branch. With the emergence of rookie WR Hank Baskett, perhaps the Eagles would trade WR Reggie Brown and either WR Todd Pinkston or WR Greg Lewis for Branch. This would provide the Pats with depth and the Eagles with a solid #1 receiver who won’t cry like a baby who’s wet his diaper. The Patriots could also trade Branch to Tampa for WR Michael Clayton, who was an excellent rookie receiver who fell victim to the sophomore jinx last year. Clayton would be a nice addition to the Patriots and would likely flourish with QB Tom Brady. Honestly, this could be a likely scenario with the pressure on Tampa to deliver now after their surprise run last year. The last of the scenarios is trading Branch to the Saints for WR Donte Stallworth, who finally showed some signs of promise last year. This, out of all the possible moves, would likely cause the most criticism on the part of New England. As for the Saints, they are already poised for plenty of shootouts next year, and any added artillery would help their immediate cause.
The Patriots are causing a lot of buzz and concern among their followers for some of the decisions they have made during the off-season. They have been criticized for being too cheap with all of their major non-signings. They let McGinest go. They let Vinatieri go. They let Givens go. And now it seems Branch is the next to ditch the Pats because of financial reasons. So far in their current dynasty the Patriots have maintained a high level of play overall because of their ability to find replacements, plug them in, and continue to have success. They made the playoffs last year despite having to play Troy Brown as a corner. They have an excellent draft record, and this year’s draft should be no exception, led by RB Laurence Moroney, who should replace RB Corey Dillon by the end of the year. However, this year should be the toughest test for New England. With the AFC as deep as its been in years, with Miami, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, San Diego, Kansas City, and Denver as contenders and Baltimore, Cleveland, and Jacksonville as possible sleepers, the Pats will have to be on top of their game to continue their incredible run. If they can overcome the losses of key players along with additional losses to the coaching staff, Bill Belichick will cement himself as the greatest coach of his generation. If the Patriots lose Branch and don’t get any immediate help in return, their receiving core will be comparable to Philadelphia’s when QB Donovan McNabb led them to 3 straight NFC Championship games. If this occurs, we will find out how great QB Tom Brady really is. If he can lead them to another championship, he could be considered greater than Montana.
But one thing is certain. Public opinion won’t be on the Patriots side for once on opening day. This year is either the icing on the cake of an incredible run, or the year that cake finally gets stale.
Pro Football Prospectus 2006