Seahawks fans woke up the next day to filmy rumors that the team was still interested in Deion Branch, the former Patriots receiver who had been holding out, unhappy with his current contract. Both the Seahawks and the New York Jets had recently inquired as to Branch’s availability, and the price a franchise would pay to being the Super Bowl XXXIX MVP to their city. The answer? A first-round pick, and a contract extension somewhere in the region of six years and $36 million, was the 1-2 punch from the Pats and Branch’s agent, according to many reports.
In the end, the Seahawks did part with their first-round pick in the 2007 draft. According to Seahawks Team President Tim Ruskell, the numbers are set. “The parameters of a deal have been struck and it will be a multi-year deal. This is long-term; it will be a long-term deal,” Ruskell said. “(Branch’s) representatives are coming in today. Obviously we wouldn’t have done it without the just of the deal being done.”
The universal question about this deal? Why? Why trade a top pick for a receiver when there appears to be a surplus at the position? If the Seahawks are going to pick up a major player, shouldn’t it be in the offensive line, or another obvious area of current concern? “It was a chance to get a good football player,” he said. “A couple weeks ago New England put it out there that this guy would be available for trade, and we inquired at that time. There’s been back and forth ever since then, but basically, Deion Branch is a good football player. We’ve looked at him and studied him. Good fit for our system in terms of what we do, and doing further research a good guy for the team, another good character guy for this football team, which I think I’m more excited about that part then the player even.
“Those were the main reasons to continue to pursue it and then ultimately get the deal done … It’s a chance to get another football player that fits our team and adds to our chemistry. We’re happy with our receivers, we’re happy with our team. It wasn’t a great game yesterday, but that’s going to fix itself. It’s funny the first game of the season, you find some abnormalities in a lot of the games, and maybe ours wasn’t any different then that. I feel good about the team. Coach (Holmgren) feels good about the team. This was just a chance to add a player that we think can add another dimension, and be dynamic and fit with the guys.”
One of the changes the Seahawks encountered in the offseason was the loss of receiver Joe Jurevicius, who supplanted Jackson when his knee problems began in 2005, and was a major factor in the team’s first Super Bowl berth. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to say that Ruskell has been looking for another Jurevicius ever since the one he previously had signed a multi-year deal with the Cleveland Browns. “(Branch is) a smart guy with football instincts,” Ruskell explained. “(He is) a very crafty guy, knows how to get open. I think he was one of Tom Brady’s favorite targets that way. When you had to have it, move the chains, get in the end zone, keep a drive alive, he’s one of those type of guys that knows what he’s doing. He loves playing the game, just finds a way to make big plays. I think that’s the one quality that separates him a little bit.”
Jurevicius excelled at the intangibles for Seattle – it wasn’t just about being a tall red zone target. Whether it was throwing a killer block or running the perfect route at the crucial time, Jurevicius was a heady receiver who always understood what the team needed. Ruskell sounded very confident with the idea that Branch is the same sort of player. This, to Ruskell, is more important than the Super Bowl MVP award in New England’s 24-21 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in New England’s third world championship in four seasons – the 11 catches for 133 yards were the aymptoms of Branch’s need and ability to step up on the big stage. The year before, when the Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, Branch brought in 10 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown.
More indicative of Branch’s value to the team was the fact that Brady hooked up with Branch four times for 71 yards on the third-quarter touchdown drive which broke the 7-7 stalemate against Philly and set New England on the winning path once again.
“That’s nice and it’s kind of some icing,” Ruskell said about the Super Bowls, “but when we looked game by game, (it was the) little things - helping the quarterback, getting open when you have to have the first down, finding the open area, finding separation between defenders in zone, those kind of things. The things that will sustain you every game not just in a big game, but he has come up big in big games.”
Branch enjoyed a breakout season in 2005, catching 78 passes for 998 yards and five touchdowns. He's in the prime of his career, with more potential upswing on the way. But how is he worth a first-round pick to Ruskell, a general manager who values the draft more than most? “I’m big on draft picks, I always will be big on draft picks, but this is a known commodity,” he said. “The first round can be a crapshoot from top to bottom. We did research back in Tampa, and when you analyze it over a 15 to 20 year period, 50 percent of the guys become players, 50 percent are bust, (and) of the 50 percent that are players it works out to about 20, 25 percent are rank-and-file good players. 20 to 25 percent actually live up to the expectations that you put on them by picking them in the first round. (Branch) is a known commodity, that we know fits our system, (and is) going to be a good player for us, going to fit with our guys. He’s going to be good for our quarterback, who is in his prime, and we want to give (Matt Hasselbeck) as many tools as we can to help him.
”It’s not going to be a period of development. He’s ready to go.”
Ruskell also spoke to the fact that Seattle’s status as a long-term Super Bowl contender was the difference in the mentality behind this deal – the idea that a very high draft pick could be an expendable commodity for the right player. “We feel good about the last two drafts, and there have been good drafts here in the past,” Ruskell said. “Those guys are contributing and playing for us. If we were a young team, if we’re trying to build, our records haven’t been that good, this is probably not a move that (we) make. We feel good about where we’re at. We’re not an old team; we’re a veteran team that’s in its prime. We’re trying to do something special, every year we felt like that, last year feel like that, this year and into the future. The stars aligned for this to happen.”
When you have talent at virtually every position, your problems are different – coaches who would otherwise scramble to fill holes must instead juggle a finite amount of starting spots among too many skilled players. Does Ruskell think it will be a problem, bringing in a receiver who will absolutely take reps away from at least one guy who expected to start all season? “We’ll talk to the guys. Mike (Holmgren) will talk to the guys about that. We’re all about making the team better, and it is about the team and not whose going to get the most catches,” Ruskell said.
“Our group has been pretty good about that, and I know Deion’s that kind of guy as well. He’ll fit in great with our guys. The goal here is to win as many games as we can, get in the playoffs and try to do something special. I know that’s his goal, that’s our guys’ goal, that’s Matt’s goal, that’s the coaches’ goal. I think if you focus on that part of it that (problem) goes away, or is at least put in the background.”
In fact, Ruskell believes this should be a sign of great encouragement to everyone on the team – they should know that this is a team that will do whatever it takes to improve, the occasional Hutchinson mix-up aside. “I think the team has gotten that message. We’ll always do that, this is a unique time to do that. Usually you take care of it with the draft or free agency. This just came about. We didn’t know Deion was going to be available, and there he was. You have to react quickly, get all the people together and say. ‘Hmm, maybe that is a fit for us’, and that’s what happened in this situation.”
Ruskell has talked to Branch, and there’s excitement on both sides of this deal. “Absolutely…he’s a football player that wants to get back on the field. He’s a guy that stays in shape year-round. He’s one of the hardest workers according to people that we talk to, and very excited about the opportunity, and likes our group, likes our chances, wants to be a part of that.”
The Seahawks will have a two-week exemption before they have to cut a player to make roster room for Branch, unless they choose to play him against the Cardinals or Giants. “If he’s ready to go Sunday, then we have to make that decision quicker, but we at least have that amount of time,” Ruskell said.
Branch’s contract will not adversely affect the team’s salary cap, according to Ruskell. In fact, this is a deal that the Seahawks appear to have considered from all possible angles. “We’re in good shape right now, and we’ll be even when we consummate this deal. You pay attention to where is it going. You don’t want to overload in one area or the other. As we analyzed it, not only now but in the future, we’re in good shape.