With Aaron Hernandez likely sidelined for at least the next month because of an injured right ankle, the Patriots have reacted quickly, bringing back receiver Deion Branch and coming to terms with tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. Tuesday, according to a league source.
Branch’s return is hardly a surprise; he was among the casualties on the final cutdown day during the preseason, but his name was never taken off his locker, which is still next to Tom Brady’s.
Having played parts of six seasons in New England (2002-05, 2010-11), Branch knows the offense, knows the personnel, and knows what will be expected of him. He caught 51 passes last season, including five touchdowns.
Winslow worked out for the Patriots during the preseason but was not offered a contract. An eight-year veteran, Winslow played the last three seasons with the Buccaneers, never missing a game and catching 77 passes in 2009 (with five touchdowns), 66 in 2010 (five TDs), and 75 last season (two scores).
He has had knee problems, though he played all 16 games in five of the past six seasons. He was released by Seattle during the preseason.
Prior to his years with Tampa Bay, Winslow spent five seasons with the Browns, who took him with the sixth overall pick of the 2004 draft. He was a teammate of Vince Wilfork’s at the University of Miami.
On Tuesday afternoon, coach Bill Belichick was asked about bringing Winslow into the mix.
“I’m not going to talk about any players that aren’t on the current active roster,” Belichick said.
To accommodate the expected additions of Branch and Winslow, the Patriots released three players from the active roster: fullback Lex Hilliard, linebacker Mike Rivera, and receiver Greg Salas.
Hilliard was signed Sept. 4, and had one rushing attempt against the Cardinals for 2 yards. Salas, acquired in a trade from St. Louis Sept. 1, didn’t play in the season opener, and wasn’t active Sunday. Rivera was used in a special teams role.
Welker ‘a big part’ of this
Wes Welker’s role in the offense has been a hot topic this week, with his diminished snaps causing rampant speculation. Asked about Welker’s role during his weekly Tuesday teleconference, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said it will continue to be a prominent one, but there are others who also deserve playing time.
“I think Wes played a big role for us the other day,” said McDaniels. “I think it just goes back to we feel like we’ve got a number of different guys that can contribute and help our offense and have earned the opportunities that they’re getting.
“I think Wes, whatever it was, we threw the ball his way 12 or 13 times, or somewhere in that neighborhood [Welker was actually targeted 11 times and had five catches]. He made a number of big plays for us.
“Each game plan ends up different. Sometimes we play guys a majority of the game, other times we feel like using some different rotations may give us some advantages, whether that’s a matchup we end up with in the front, or a personnel grouping that we expect the defense to give us, or even formationally ourselves in terms of what we try to do.
“There’s a number of factors that go into our game plan every week, but certainly he’s going to be a big part of our game plan each week.”
McDaniels praised the work of Julian Edelman, who started the game in place of Welker and also caught five passes.
“He’s a guy that gives you everything he’s got on every play,” said McDaniels. “He’s got good speed and has caught the ball well for us so far this year. He certainly gives you an element — he’s a returner — so he certainly gives you an element of run after the catch.”
Now that he’s retired — and a football analyst — Matt Light can freely give his opinions about the Patriots, which he was happy to do Tuesday, when he hosted an event in Mapleville, R.I., to benefit his foundation, which helps at-risk teenagers.
“It’s so hard to judge in the National Football League how things are going to go,” Light said. “They came out of the gate firing on all cylinders, then the game a couple days ago, not so much. I think overall, they’re going to be fine. We don’t need to make too much of it in Week 2, but there’s definitely a lot of things they’ve got to work on.”
Has Light, who spent 11 seasons with the Patriots, ever questioned his decision to step away from football?
“When I close the door on something, I move on and I’m gone,” he said. “There’s a big part of me that misses the guys and definitely the fun we had in the locker room and things that we were able to do together. But the on-the-field stuff, I have definitely moved on from.”
The eighth Matt Light Celebrity Shoot-Out featured a number of current and former Patriots, including Rob Gronkowski, Jerod Mayo, Rob Ninkovich, and offensive linemen Marcus Cannon, Ryan Wendell, and Logan Mankins.
Before the Cardinals game, Belichick said Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald could wind up as the greatest receiver in NFL history. Fitzgerald was held to one of the worst statistical games of his career, catching one pass for 4 yards. Time for Fitzgerald to return the favor. “Coach Belichick is not the best coach in history for no reason,” Fitzgerald told the team’s website. “He’s done it for a long time. He does a great job defensively. It was good to get out with a win, to be honest.” . . . Belichick also said the team would not provide an injury update on Hernandez until after Wednesday’s practice, when the first injury report of the week is due . . . Brian Fox, the artist from Somerset who created the painting honoring Myra Kraft that was given by the players last season to Patriots owner Robert Kraft, showed off his latest work at Light’s event. It shows Gronkowski spiking the football, and was to be auctioned off to assist the fund-raising.Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.