Readers bent out of shape about Branch
FOXBOROUGH -- This week's mailbag is split down the middle -- half Deion Branch, half everything else.
The Branch situation is naturally on the mind of a lot of fans. As the questions came in this week, I created a separate folder for Branch-only e-mails, and the e-mails easily equaled those in the non-Branch folder.
Speaking with a few experts on sports law earlier this week, their feeling is that Branch has a tough road to win his grievances. Still, anything can happen in arbitration, so nothing is a slam dunk.
Meanwhile, back at Gillette Stadium, safety Rodney Harrison said Branch's situation isn't a distraction.
"We understand it's a business and we understand Deion has a position and the team has a position; that's between them," he said. "We love Deion, we support Deion, we know Deion is one of the best players on this team. He's a very integral part of our past success as well as the future. That's something they have to agree on. It hasn't become a distraction, it won't become a distraction, and we just have to keep going."
On to some questions ...
Is Branch's agent hell-bent on being the guy who breaks the Pats' system? Or are the Pats so ridiculously stubborn that they refuse to acknowledge what everyone else knows: Branch has earned a new, much larger contract? How did it get to this? Look at the number of former No. 1 WRs that have been cut. Consider that it is generally believed that a WR takes 2-3 years to develop. That means Chad Jackson probably won't be consistently contributing until 2008. That is why Seattle will hand over a second rounder and a fat contract. That is why the Jets want him. He's young, entering his prime, a team player, no off-field issues; a proven commodity. Why are the Pats willing to roll the dice with other teams' castoffs and unproven draft picks? Tom Brady is the best QB in the game! Surrounding him with the WRs currently on the roster is like refusing to pay for premium gas for your Porsche, even though you can afford it.
A: Good stuff here, Dan. As for how it got to this point, I'd say it started with one of the Patriots' last contract offers, in May. My feeling is that when Branch's camp saw the offer, and felt it was ridiculously low, they made a commitment to get Branch out of New England and into unrestricted free agency (where they get a big payday), instead of making a commitment to get a deal done with New England. Talks went dead. In saying this, I'm not putting the entire onus on Branch's side, because the Patriots could have done different things along the way to spark talks, such as sweeten their original offer. In the end, it takes two sides to get a deal done and the two sides haven't been on the same page, with the big split coming in May.
As I was reading about Deion Branch's grievance against the Pats, I realized how flawed and wrong Deion's argument is. He is claiming that he is a No. 1 receiver and deserves No. 1 money, but he also claims that the Patriots should accept a trade to deal him with a second-round pick as compensation. A No. 1 receiver is worth at least a first-rounder, not a single second-rounder. Can you explain Branch's logic? Or is there something else I am missing?
Ben Barash, Concord
A: I'm going to flip this around, and look at it from Branch's side. The Patriots are apparently saying he's worth more than a second-round pick, but their last contract offer wasn't reflective of that, in Branch's opinion. So I think it goes both ways here. While I don't have a background in law, it seems to me that Branch's camp has filed two grievances because they can play one off the other. The first grievance is that the Patriots received reasonable compensation for Branch in the form of a second-round pick. The Patriots will fight that and say he is worth more than that, and probably win. Then comes the second grievance, which is that the Patriots haven't negotiated in good faith. Branch's camp would then use the Patriots' argument from the first grievance that Branch is worth more than a second-round pick, and say "Then why don't you pay him accordingly?"
Here I go again worrying about Deion Branch. While I know that Robert Kraft must have created a job description for Bill Belichick that says Bill gets to "buy the groceries" as well as cook the dinner, I'm surprised that Kraft hasn't worked behind the scenes in some way to get all of the parties to the bargaining table for meaningful discussions. He is a savvy businessman who could work behind the scenes and keep all egos from bruising (at least) in public. Also, what are your thoughts on the receivers that we picked up?
Donna Glick, Waltham
A: When Kraft spoke before the team's Kickoff Gala last week, he said he's been aware of every step of the process regarding Deion Branch. I believe him, and also believe he's 100 percent on board with the Patriots' approach regarding Branch. As for the receivers picked up from other clubs, my initial thought is that Doug Gabriel was a steal for a fifth-round pick, and Jonathan Smith will help more on special teams than at receiver.
I need to sound off on this Branch issue. First of all, I think it was pretty dumb of New England to let Branch seek a trade. Second, is Eric Mangini serious with the offer to Branch? Talk about a slap in the face to Bill Belichick. That really stings and I hope Mangini falls flat on his face as head coach. Third, if Branch does come back, wouldn't he feel resentful toward Bill Belichick and the Patriots for not paying up earlier? Would love to hear your thoughts as I am at a crossroads with this issue.
Jamie Volpicelli, Trumbull, Conn.
A: When the Patriots allowed Branch to seek other offers, I viewed it as a tactic to spark what had become stagnant negotiations. In retrospect, it looks like that plan backfired on the Patriots. As for Mangini and the Jets' offer, I'd file that under the "business is business" category. Belichick is one of the best coaches in the NFL and one of the reasons is that he seldom makes a decision based on emotion, but instead based on what's best for his football team. I believe Mangini is following that same blueprint with this move, and can't blame him for that. Finally, I don't have the answer to your third question because I haven't spoken with Branch and don't know how deeply personal the situation has become with him.
Given their recent miscalculation of market demand for Deion Branch and the prospect that Daniel Graham will also bolt next year if he doesn't receive a rich contract, isn't it long, LONG overdue that the Pats radically overhaul their "value" strategy, delegating a much higher percentage of their overall available salary cap to skill position starters?
Pete Clark, England
A: I don't think the Patriots need to devote a higher percentage of their overall salary cap to skill position starters. But the question on whether they need to alter their overall value strategy is an interesting one because it hits at the core of the Patriots' team-building process. For example, if the Patriots ponied up $13 million in bonuses to Deion Branch, how will that affect players like Mike Vrabel ($5 million bonus) and Tedy Bruschi ($3.5 million bonus), who signed extensions within the last few seasons. I'm sure these are the factors that the team considers in any negotiation -- how it affects other players. The Patriots have remained disciplined in their approach, and it's hard to argue with the results. So in the end, I'd say they don't need to dramatically overhaul their value strategy.
The Patriots should not have taken the 3-year, $19-million deal off the table for Branch. It is kids stuff. At least that might be a starting point. Is this salvageable?
A: While that deal is technically off the table, I'm sure it would immediately be back on the table if the Patriots and Branch's camp got back to the negotiating table. In other words, I wouldn't read too much into the deal being pulled. As for if this is salvageable, there are only a few people who have the answer to that question, and I'm not one of them. My hunch is that it is.
Doesn't it seem like a big mistake to not take care of a guy like Deion Branch who, by all accounts, is the consummate teammate, hard worker and the best receiver they have had for the last couple of years? Maybe it is a business, but this seems like mostly stubbornness by Scott Pioli and Belichick. They should have signed him a year ago and David Givens two years ago. Enough of Kraft talking about high character players and being a family.
Dave Sullivan, Tampa
A: It all depends on how you define "taking care" of a player. My feeling is that it takes two to make a deal, so I don't think it's fair to pin this solely on Belichick/Pioli/Kraft or solely on Branch's camp. If both sides are committed to getting a deal done that would keep Branch in New England, it should work itself out.
With what appears to be a thin receiver corps, I was surprised by the release of Bam Childress. What's your take on this move?
Bob Robertson, Pensacola, Fla.
A: Childress had a solid preseason and was re-signed to the practice squad on Monday. With all due respect to Childress, I didn't see the move as a big deal because I don't expect him to be one of the team's top four receivers this year. If I had to guess, I'd say it was a move made with special teams in mind, as Jonathan Smith -- the player who took Childress's spot -- has more experience in that area.
Why have Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli allowed us to become so dangerously thin at linebacker? I would have thought that both Jeremy Mincey and Freddie Roach would make the practice squad. Why else would they make it to the last cuts if they didn't show something? We should have at least a couple of linebackers on the practice squad to develop.
Mike Moretti, Florida
A: Great question here, Mike. The Patriots have found it challenging to find linebackers in the draft who have the take-on ability to play inside in the 3-4 defense. As for the outside linebackers, it looks like they have a few young players -- four-year veteran Tully Banta-Cain and rookie free agent Pierre Woods -- who are promising. In the end, I think it comes down to the fact that the Patriots don't want to invest high draft choices in players who don't project to play on every down. A lot of the 3-4 inside linebackers in the draft are two-down players -- first and second down -- and thus likely slip on the team's draft board. Take Iowa's Abdul Hodge (early third round, Packers) as an example from the 2006 draft. This is a player I think really could have helped the Patriots this year, but my guess is that he carried a mid-round grade because he wouldn't be on the field on third down. It's just a hunch on my part, but one that is based on watching the team's draft philosophy over the last seven years. Unless a player is a defensive lineman, he must have every-down ability to be a high pick. I'm curious if the team will alter its approach in upcoming drafts based on the lack of youth at inside linebacker. As for Mincey, who landed on the 49ers' practice squad, I thought he was outplayed by Pierre Woods. And while I was high on Roach at the start of camp, he didn't impress me in game action.
The team is well below the salary cap. What do you expect them to do with the excess of cap room?
A: I expect the Patriots to use the cap room, but they are under no rush to do so. Salary cap flexibility is never a bad thing, as evidenced by the end of one recent season when the Patriots were so tight to the cap, they had to release players to sign replacements. If the Patriots don't use the salary cap space by the end of the year, then I think the team should be held accountable for not spending to the limit. But there is plenty of time for the Patriots to get there.
Do you think the Pats have any interest in Bethel Johnson. Does any team for that matter?
Carl Ferry, Culver City, Calif.
A: Johnson banged up his knee and was let go by the Saints. Until he's healthy, I'd be surprised if a team signed him. I don't see him returning to the Patriots.
Any thoughts regarding when the compensation for Doug Gabriel will be announced. I'm guessing a 4th round pick, but who knows? Thoughts?
A: The Patriots traded a fifth-round pick for Gabriel. That news was first reported by Patriots Football Weekly, and was later confirmed.
There was a lot of cross fertilization going on last weekend with the massive cuts and some players getting picked up by other teams. Players like Guss Scott and Dan Klecko, and traded players like Patrick Cobbs have the Patriots playbook either in their hands or in their minds. Do teams get concerned about their playbook getting into the hands of the other teams? How is that prevented? Is it a factor in the decision to pick up a player?
Gregg Mousley, Vermont
A: When you mentioned cross fertilization, the first thought was that this was going to be a question on Gillette Stadium field superintendent Jon Bengston. When players are released, they have to turn in their playbooks, which prevents them from taking it to their next team. Coaches, on the other hand, usually take their playbooks with them to the next team. While I believe teams generally downplay picking up players from other teams as a way to learn an opposition's plans, I think there is something there. I'd use the Patriots' waiver claim on Jonathan Smith as an example. The Patriots play the Bills in the season opener, and Smith spent all of training camp with the Bills, who have a new coaching staff. I'd be stunned if the team didn't ask Smith some of the Bills' plans for how to attack the Patriots, both on offense and special teams.
Does the lack of WR depth (and familiarity with the installed system) mean it's more likely we'll see a simple game-plan, or does it make it more likely that they'll throw in some gimmick plays to take advantage? Defenses have to plan for personnel changes just like offenses do.
Jim, Bryan, Ohio
A: If I had to guess the Patriots' game-plan against the Bills, it would be to establish the run and then attack Buffalo with a spread offense that focused on the middle of the field, targeting the safeties. The biggest thing missing from the Patriots' offense at this time is a consistent outside-the-numbers passing game that defenses must respect. Because of this, working out of the spread can keep the defense spread wide, while allowing the passing game to work the middle of the field, specifically with tight ends. I don't see too many gimmick plays in the mix.
A couple of transaction questions: After clearing waivers, do rookies have a choice regarding which team they can go to? Are all practice squad players paid the same amount, or can one team sweeten its deal to entice a player if it missed that player on waivers the first time around?
Chris Warner, Bronx, NY
A: Any player that clears waivers then becomes a free agent, and can choose any team. As for practice squad salaries, I recall one year in which the Patriots kept Brandon Gorin on the practice squad and paid him a full salary, so based on that, I think some of those deals can be sweetened.
What is the status of WR Chad Jackson? There has not been much media coverage of him. What is his availability?
Blair, Ottawa, Canada
A: Jackson is still recovering from a hamstring injury and hasn't practiced for about a month, or played in a game. Jackson declined comment in the locker room on Monday, but looked to be moving around just fine. I wouldn't expect him to play in the opener and expect him to be on the injury report that comes out Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET.
Any update on Laurence Maroney? ESPN has him out against the Bills. We did not hear that from local media? Why?
Mike, Clearwater, Fla.
A: After seeing Maroney participating in practice on Monday, I'd be surprised if the Patriots have already decided he won't play in the season opener. I'm taking a wait-and-see approach on Maroney, who I don't think would have practiced if he didn't have a chance to play.
Do you think the Pats will have any interest in Charles Rogers? And do you think it would be worth a look despite his production in Detroit?
Chris Smith, Norton
A: I don't see the Patriots having any interest in Rogers because of some of the clouds that surround him. I'd be surprised if the team went in that direction.