Branch Situation A Quagmire

New England Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch remains a holdout, but is now armed with permission to seek a trade. His uncertain return, along with Chad Jackson's ongoing hamstring concerns has put New England in a bind for receivers. Although the offense has averaged over 450 yards per game, the Patriots understand that without Branch in the fold, that success could change quickly.

As the regular season draws ever closer, negotiations between the Patriots and former Super Bowl MVP wide receiver Deion Branch may be as far apart as ever. Heading into his fifth NFL season, Branch is scheduled to earn a little more than $1 million in 2006, a number that nearly doubled thanks to escalators he achieved a year ago when he recorded career highs with 78 receptions for 998 yards and five touchdowns. But the former 2002 second-round pick is looking for a long-term extension that pays him at a level commensurate with his contributions to the New England offense -- meaning he wants to be paid like a true No. 1 wide receiver.

Off-season negotiations -- if they can even be called negotiations at this point, when the team and player have had little dialogue in recent weeks after a reported offer of a three-year extension for $19 million with $8 million in bonus money -- have stalled. The impasse became a vortex last week when the team issued a two-line statement to Branch's camp and the media.

"The New England Patriots have given Deion Branch permission to seek a trade and negotiate a contract with other clubs," said the Aug. 25 release. "This permission will extend until September, 1, 2006."

How Branch's holdout plays itself out at this point is anyone's guess. Will other teams be willing to fork over a large contract to him while also having to compensate the Patriots in a trade? Will the short period to seek a deal hinder the process? Is the relationship between Branch and the Patriots forever fractured? And if he remains a Patriot after Sept. 1, will his holdout continue into the regular season and potentially through Week 10?

From the perspective of a Patriots fan, those questions are all unknowns, but one thing that's for sure is the fact that quarterback Tom Brady is severely undermanned in terms of passing options with just more than a week to go before New England's season opener against the Buffalo Bills.

Rookie second-round pick Chad Jackson, a guy originally drafted to help replace off-season free-agent departure and No. 2 wideout David Givens, has practiced just three times thanks to a hamstring injury. When the rookie can get on the practice field and eventually suit up for a game, his development may already be irreparably damaged as he tries to make the difficult jump from star college receiver to immediate pro contributor.

Free-agent addition Reche Caldwell has practiced all preseason and has actually had one of the better training camps of any player on the Gillette Stadium practice fields. Unfortunately for the former Charger, that practice work hasn't transferred to the preseason game field. Caldwell has struggled to get open in all three of New England's exhibition contests and has dropped his fair share of passes from Brady in the early going. His new quarterback has also had to spend a lot of time working with the receiver on the game field trying to get him where he needs him to be in his various routes in New England's precise passing game.

Beyond those two players, two guys expected to help replace Givens but who are now forced to possibly fill Branch's shoes, there aren't a ton of other options at receiver. Veteran Troy Brown remains a consistent presence, but entering his 14th season it's hard to imagine he's capable of the 100-catch type seasons and remaining healthy for a full year as was the case in the middle stages of his career.

Further down the depth chart all Brady finds is an indistinguishable cast of unknown and unproven characters. Bam Childress, Kelvin Kight, Eddie Berlin or Keron Henry, anyone? Not exactly the sort of receiving lineup quarterbacks like to see heading toward the regular season. But with Branch potentially on the move, or at the very least remaining entrenched in a holdout that seemingly gets uglier and less resolvable by the week, it's the reality Brady finds himself in right now.

So while Branch and his agent are seeking a better deal with a new team, Brady and the Patriots are still seeking replacement options in the passing game. And with the regular-season opener just around the corner, the search process for each remains a giant mess.

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