Will The Patriots Move On Without Branch?

Wide receiver Deion Branch remained a no-show at Patriots training camp in Foxboro. The veteran receiver's ongoing holdout has impacted many of his teammates, most notably quarterback Tom Brady. Each day that goes by without an agreement fuels speculation that the team is willing to move on without their top receiver. Patriots Insider addresses the key issues, including a recent trade rumor.

WR Deion Branch continued his contract holdout Monday as the Patriots returned to Foxborough after their first preseason game. Branch is subject to daily fines of $14,000 as he tries to force the team into negotiating a contract extension. The potential for fines have amounted to over $250,000 at this point, nearly 25% of Branch's total base pay for the year. The former Louisville product may not report to camp any time soon according to a report by Jason Cole (formerly of the Miami Herald).

People don't understand how committed he is to this," a source close to Branch said. "He's not going to come in until he gets something he feels that is fair."

Fair for Branch is estimated to be a deal in the ballpark of Reggie Wayne's six-year $40 million contract with its $13 million bonus. The Patriots are interested in a more reasonable deal like that of former Patriot WR David Givens' agreement with the Titans - a five-year $24 million contract with $8 bonus money. Branch reportedly received an offer from the team to extend his contract through the 2009 season that included $8 million in bonus money. The roughly $20 million extension offer was not to the liking of Branch's camp so discussions have stagnated.

If Branch is determined to sit out the season to reach free agency next year, he will still need to report for the final nine weeks of the regular season to get credit for the year according to the NFLPA. Branch's agent Jason Chayut has said publicly that Branch will report to camp if the Patriots agree not to use the franchise tag on him next year - a clear indication that the goal is to get Branch to the open market where bidding for his services is more likely to yield a "fair" deal.

While Branch is out, receivers Reche Caldwell and Troy Brown have taken turns in the starting role at Patriots camp. The preseason game against the Falcons provided a clear indication that the team needs its No. 1 receiver back in the fold for the passing game to thrive. Patriots receivers accounted for just 27 of the 245 yards passing on Friday night. While spreading the ball around to backs and tight ends may work in the preseason, teams will game plan against that strategy in the regular season, putting yet more emphasis to get Branch back into camp.

Starting quarterback Tom Brady understood the impact not having Branch available meant to to team. He remained confidant things will work out eventually, and shared his thoughts on playing without his top target from last season.

"I'm sure he was watching [the Falcons game], living and dying with us," Brady said."When he shows up, he'll be in great shape and ready to go. I know he's dying to be out here."

A league source confirmed to Patriots Insider that the team has no inclination to trade the disgruntled receiver at this point. The likely scenario would be to fine Branch up to the maximum allowable when he does return to camp and then place the franchise tag on him for 2007. Franchising Branch would give the Patriots two seasons of Branch's services at below market value, but may have a more negative impact on Branch's teammates. While the team's public stance of not discussing the situation may irk the media, it avoids adding fuel to an already combustible situation.

If Branch's goal were to become a free agent, the smart course of action would have been to report to camp on time, play under his existing contract and test free agency if the team didn't franchise him. By following his agent's advice and holding out, Branch placed a roadblock - possible fines - in the path of the negotiations. Now to save face, Branch cannot return to camp without a new deal.

It's clear that Brady wants Branch to return. It's understood the team wants Branch to return. The question now is does Deion want to return, and how much will it cost to get him to reach that decision?

For now the saga continues.

Read about thoughts and coverage of camp in the Patriots Insider blog.

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