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No reception, and no return

Patriots, Branch still far apart

FOXBOROUGH -- Eight days into training camp, the Patriots and holdout wide receiver Deion Branch remain at a stalemate. Talks regarding a contract extension weren't active as of last night, and haven't been for months.

Branch, entering his fifth season and the final year of the contract he signed as a second-round pick, has accumulated $126,000 in fines, should the Patriots decide to take that course of action.

A source close to the parties indicated they are not talking about salary figures because of the difference of opinion regarding Branch's value. The gap was described as being in different stratospheres.

Because of that difference, Branch's camp is seeking a commitment from the Patriots to not place the franchise tag on Branch when he is scheduled to become a free agent after this season. Running back Shaun Alexander had a similar agreement with the Seahawks prior to last season. At this point, that seems to be the most likely way Branch would end his holdout.

The breakdown in talks traces to May, when the Patriots attempted to spark negotiations by offering Branch a contract extension through 2009. The offer included a $4 million signing bonus and $4 million option bonus payable in 2007. Branch's base salary for 2006 would be $1.045 million, followed by salaries of $1.4 million in 2007, $4.3 million in 2008, and $4.75 million in 2009. The deal also included workout bonuses of $300,000. Over the four years of the deal, Branch would be paid just shy of $5 million per year. Assessing only the three years added to the original contract, plus bonus money, Branch would be averaging about $6.25 million per year.

Looking at the contract over a four-year period (2006-09), Branch would be tied for 17th among NFL receivers in average salary per year with Washington's Santana Moss, St. Louis's Isaac Bruce, and Dallas's Terry Glenn. Focusing solely on the three years added to the original contract (2007-09), Branch would rank 13th in average salary per year, between Pittsburgh's Hines Ward (12th) and Miami's Chris Chambers and Denver's Rod Smith (tied for 14th). Currently, Branch's base salary ranks him 44th among NFL receivers (all rankings are as of the beginning of July) .

The contract was rejected by Branch's agent, Jason Chayut, who said last month that one problem was the offer included too much money in the final years. Agents try to avoid deals with the majority of money in late years because NFL contracts aren't guaranteed. Another concern was making sure the deal held up over time. While the contract ranks highly among receivers at this time, it would surely dip as more receivers renegotiated contracts.

From the Patriots' perspective, the deal was structured with the idea that Branch could earn all of the money. Because the extension would only be through 2009, and would potentially allow Branch to reach unrestricted free agency before his ninth season, there was no reason to think he wouldn't collect the total money (nearly $20 million).

There is also the issue of timing. Branch's camp is seeking a deal that players would receive in unrestricted free agency, such as the six-year, $40 million contract signed by Reggie Wayne with the Colts, which included a $13.5 million signing bonus.

The Patriots countered with the argument that Wayne was entering unrestricted free agency, whereas Branch is still under contract for one season. The prices are higher on the unrestricted market, as David Givens found out this offseason with a five-year, $24 million contract that included $8 million in bonuses from the Tennessee Titans.

That has been a sticking point, because Chayut said last month that when Branch was a rookie, he had an agreement in principle with the Patriots on a four-year contract that would have had Branch entering unrestricted free agency this past offseason. That deal, Chayut said, was pulled off the table late in the negotiating process and replaced with a five-year offer. Chayut didn't file a grievance at the time.

There has been no dialogue between the sides since the offer in May, although there has been plenty of chatter elsewhere. Branch has told those close to him he was pleased to hear what he felt were supportive comments from quarterback Tom Brady that appeared in a Sports Illustrated piece this week.

Meanwhile, the Patriots continue to work at training camp shorthanded at receiver. During yesterday's lone practice, the top three receivers on the field were free agent signee Reche Caldwell, Troy Brown, and second-year player John Stone (three career catches in five games).

Brown, a 14-year veteran, has become close with Branch in recent years. When Brown held his football camp in West Virginia, Branch was one of his guest coaches. And when Branch held his event in Louisville, Ky., Brown returned the favor.

``I don't really know exactly what he's going through," said Brown. ``I guess he had a plan, and this is what he was going to do. I've never experienced it, so I can't describe what it's like to be going through this now. I wish him the best of luck and hope he gets things straightened out pretty soon."

Brown said it's no secret what the Patriots are missing in Branch, who led the team with 78 catches for 998 yards and led receivers with five touchdowns last season.

``You've seen him play," Brown said. ``He's a pretty good player. Right now, we just have to work with what we have. I think the guys are doing a good job of getting themselves ready to play. Deion, I think he needs to get his situation straightened out, and we'd like to have him back as soon as possible."

The problem, of course, is that it's difficult to straighten things out when the sides aren't talking. And as of yesterday, the lines of communication remained closed.

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