Branch Makes A Case For Staying

Battle of roster spots at wide receivers has savvy veteran in the mix...

     An old familiar face stood out among the four wide receivers taking the field for the Patriots on Monday night against the Philadelphia Eagles.

     Deion Branch made his preseason debut for New England on offense with a start at wide receiver. The 11-year veteran was targeted only four times by the Patriots backup quarterbacks and still led the Patriots with 51 receiving yards on three catches.

     "I felt pretty good. I was excited. I was happy to be back on the field," said Branch in the locker room following the game.

     Heading into training camp, Branch found himself fighting for his job. There are limited roster spots at receiver with the return of Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth to the Patriots; the signing of big name free agent Brandon Lloyd; and Wes Welker garnering the franchise tag.

     The Patriots also sign lesser-known free agent Jesse Holley from the Cowboys, who had seven receptions for 169 yards in 2011. The other two significant players listed on the team's receiver depth chart are Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater, who serve prominent roles on special teams.

     With this log-jam of receiver talent on the roster, many Patriot pundits viewed the 2012 training camp as possibly being Branch's last in New England.
     "Every year is competition," said the diplomatic Branch.

     Despite skipping the first preseason game against New Orleans, Branch practice steadily since with all three units during camp. Monday night's second preseason game against Philadelphia was his first big chance to stake his claim for his roster spot.

     With two backup quarterbacks throwing him the ball, Branch made three big plays at key times during the game to keep scoring drives alive.  During a first quarter drive, the Patriots faced a third-and-five from the Philadelphia 49 yard line, Branch caught a short Ryan Mallett pass cutting left across the field in tight coverage and took it for a 20 yard gain. The play set up the Patriots first field goal.

     In the second quarter and Brian Hoyer under center, the Patriots faced a key third-and-13 from the Eagles 28 yard line. Branch bailed the Patriots offense out again by catching a deep in-cut, squaring his body perfectly between the ball and the defender for 17 yards, again making the grab in tight coverage. The catch set up the Patriots only touchdown for the game.

     His third catch may have been the toughest of the three receptions. Running down the left sideline in the third quarter, Branch had to cut the route short on an underthrown Mallett pass. He was able to secure the ball in his breadbasket with a defender stuck to his left hip. The play was good for 14 yards to the Eagles 41 yard line and set up a Patriots field goal.

     "I thought he competed well and made three pretty good catches for us in pretty tight coverage and traffic so that's always good to see," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick during Tuesday's press conference.
     In comparison, Stallworth had a difficult game. He was targeted six times, but only managed to pull in one 20 yard reception. He failed to show much fight for the ball on his other opportunities.

     Edelman fared slightly better with two receptions for 24 yards; but rookie Jeremy Ebert looked slow and failed to impress after being targeted eight times with only three receptions for 18 yards, including a handful of key dropped passes.

     "We played the players that we played and we told them they should expect to play a lot and a lot of them did," said Belichick. "That's kind of how that worked out. Deion did play a lot and of course he didn't play last week so this was really his first game action even though he's been out on the practice field a lot.

     "He's worked hard through camp and it was good to have him out there last night," he said.

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