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Branching out (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday August 1, 2006 10:31AM; Updated: Tuesday August 1, 2006 7:15PM
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The MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX, Deion Branch had 78 catches for 998 yards and five touchdowns last season.
The MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX, Deion Branch had 78 catches for 998 yards and five touchdowns last season.
Peter Read Miller/SI
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"I hope he's here another 5-7 years," Brady said, "but that's not up to me. The player-club dynamic has changed so much over the years. I know that Deion's the best guy in the world to have around; I also know that Coach Belichick and [vice president of player personnel] Scott Pioli are very disciplined, and the decisions they make are very black-and-white.

"I have a lot of confidence that this is going to get worked out, I really do. But I'm glad we're not playing a game this week."

Brady's optimism is admirable given the shaky state of affairs. Branch's agent, Jason Chayut, did not return a call seeking comment on Monday, but a source familiar with the situation outlined it thusly:

• Before training camp, the Patriots made an offer for an extension that would have given Branch a signing bonus of nearly $4 million and paid him roughly $20 million over the next four seasons. The deal was structured in such a way that unless the team were to release Branch following the 2006 season (in which case he'd become an unrestricted free agent), the receiver would almost assuredly be guaranteed the balance of his contract, as the Pats' salary-cap hit beginning in '07 would have been prohibitive.

• The Patriots expected Branch's agent to make a counter offer and that negotiations would bridge the gap. Instead, Chayut rejected the deal outright and asked, as he had since March, that the team agree not to place a franchise tag on the wideout after '06. The Patriots refused, believing, in the words of one executive, that such a move would set a "horrible precedent." They also told Chayut that if Branch didn't report for the first day of camp, the offer for the extension would be off the table and no further discussions would take place.

• As of Monday afternoon, there had been no further communication between the club and Chayut. In theory, Branch, 27, could wait until the 10th game of the regular season to report and still receive credit for having played a fifth year, thus making him eligible for unrestricted free agency -- unless, of course, New England were to place a franchise tag on him.

Branch reportedly wants to be paid as much as the Colts' Reggie Wayne, who in February signed a six-year, $40 million contract extension with $13.5 million in bonuses. Branch, who was MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX, caught a career-best 78 passes for 998 yards and five touchdowns in '05. Those stats aren't enough to arouse most fantasy players, but Brady, perhaps the only superstar quarterback besides John Elway who has never had a marquee receiver (at least before Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey reinvented themselves), believes that he and Branch are on the verge of something special.

"You only get better as a quarterback and a receiver when you've been through stuff together, and Deion and I are kind of at that point where we can draw on past experiences and react to things instantly," Brady said. "He has such unbelievable quickness, and he uses that and his strength to get free on the line of scrimmage when people try to jam him. I mean, last year Sam Madison, who's one of the best at jamming receivers, tried to get him at the line, and Deion was open by like 10 yards.

"I asked [cornerback] Eric Warfield, who was with the Chiefs until we signed him this year, 'How does Deion compare with the best receivers in the league?' He said, 'Deion was the best I faced last year. He was spectacular.'"

But because Belichick, Pioli and owner Robert Kraft believe so strongly that their system of player-valuation will translate into success -- and because they've been blessed with a transcendent quarterback who enables everyone around him to thrive -- there's virtually no chance the team will ever spend big money to land an ultra-talented receiver in free agency.

The Pats are not averse to going after productive players such as Derrick Mason, who nearly took a slightly better offer from the Pats before accepting a five-year, $20 million deal from the Ravens prior to last season; or Eric Moulds, who ultimately chose to sign with the Texans this spring. Yet New England management believes its next star wideout will come from the draft -- the current thinking being that Jackson, a second-round pick from Florida, has that kind of potential down the road.

It should also be noted that the team is loaded at tight end, with burgeoning beast Ben Watson, fierce-blocking Daniel Graham and promising third-round draft pick David Thomas. But the stark reality is that without Branch the Patriots' passing game could begin the season in a state of disarray.

Is it any wonder that Brady, when asked if he was experiencing emotions similar to those following Milloy's departure, answered yes, without hesitation?

"When that happened, I just kind of expressed myself, and after I did I had a lot of conversations with Belichick and Mr. Kraft," Brady said. "They know I'm a very emotional person; I wear it on my sleeve, on and off the field. If there's one thing I'm not, it's full of crap.

"The only people who truly understand what Deion is going through are those of us on the team who are his buddies. But at the same time, we're in here working and he's not, and he feels a little awkward. But the bottom line is that Deion is one of the best in the world at what he does, and it's so hard for him and for us, because this is a really ruthless sport."

These are not offhand comments; rather, they are those of a grumpy man who understands his power and his place. At 28, Brady has learned how to play the game behind the game -- and, in this case, the two battlegrounds may be inextricably linked.

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