Making the best of a bad situation
Patriots mailbag once again all about Branch
Monday's news that receiver Deion Branch was traded to the Seahawks for a 2007 first-round pick yielded varying responses from those e-mailing the Patriots' mailbag.
Some felt it was great value for the Patriots, to receive a first-round pick for a player who was likely to leave via unrestricted free agency in 2007 and was part of a situation that could have become a distraction. Others felt the Patriots were the losers in this trade, now without their best receiver, which could handcuff Tom Brady and the pass offense.
My feeling is the same as it's been throughout this process. To sum it up, negotiations are two-way streets and the two sides were never even close to being at the same point on the map. The Patriots were willing to pay to a certain point. Deion Branch was willing to accept a salary at a certain level. They couldn't work it out, and both sides share in the accountability for that.
I'm guessing that the frustrating part from a team perspective is that there was never any consistent dialogue in contract talks. In the end, I believe the team decided to make the best of what turned into a bad situation, and a first-round pick is a nice chip.
Several fans were curious if the Patriots might pursue a receiver through a trade or free agency. Right now, the team has Reche Caldwell, Troy Brown, Bam Childress, Doug Gabriel and Chad Jackson. My feeling is that the Patriots will want to see what they have in Gabriel and Jackson before making a significant move.
The first part of the mailbag focuses on the Branch situation, with non-Branch questions filling up the back half.
And before we get started, any fans out there who might know of a place to watch Patriots games in Austin, Texas, pass it along and we'll try to help out one Patriots fan who wrote in looking for a friendly spot.
I am utterly disappointed the Pats had to trade one of the best receivers in the game today for a late first round pick. With the NFC being so weak, I expect to see Seattle in the playoffs again giving the Pats a late rounder at best. Do you think the Pats have sealed their own fate for the 06-07 season without a quality receiver?
John Dones, Bradford
A: My feeling is that the Patriots are a better team in 2006 with Deion Branch than without him, although I wouldn't say that seals their fate. There is a long way to go in this season and I'm curious to see more from Chad Jackson and Doug Gabriel at receiver, and there's always the possibility of other moves/trades. As for the first-round pick being late, the Patriots have done some of their best work around that point of the draft, with tight end Benjamin Watson (32nd in 2004) and offensive lineman Logan Mankins (32nd in 2005), so I wouldn't discount the value of the pick.
What can the Patriots' brass be thinking, with their decision to trade Deion Branch for a 2007 draft pick? It looks like they are completely giving up on a passing attack -- and perhaps the playoffs -- this year. A 2007 draft pick can't catch a Brady pass this season. Neither can David Givens. Nor Deion Branch. Nor Tim Dwight. Nor Bethel Johnson. Nor, it appears, can Reche Caldwell (a study in mediocrity), Bam Childress (from the practice squad), or Chad Jackson (from the hamstring squad). Thank goodness for Troy Brown (from the geriatric squad). It saddens me to see the NFL's premier quarterback, Brady, stripped of his weapons by his own brass. Tell me I'm missing the grand plan, please. Show me the error of my thinking, and what the Patriots brain trust has in mind.
Roy Prophet, Ruskin, Fla.
A: My feeling is that the Patriots' management isn't looking at the situation through a narrow lens -- specifically, with just the 2006 season in mind. I'd be surprised if the Patriots felt they were a better team without Branch than with him this season. But this simply got to a point where the sides weren't going to come to an agreement, so my feeling is that the Patriots had to make the best out of a bad situation. Instead of having a holdout player that could be a distraction, or caving in and breaking the discipline of their team-building model, the Patriots decided to get what they could, and a first-round pick is a nice chip. Consider the team's solid record with first-round picks -- Richard Seymour (2001), Daniel Graham (2002), Ty Warren (2003), Vince Wilfork (2004), Benjamin Watson (2004), Logan Mankins (2005) and Laurence Maroney (2006).
Do you know if the Jets upped their ante and offered a first-round pick for Branch? If so do you think they would have traded him to the Jets instead of Seattle, or would the AFC East head-to-head come into play. The Jets first round pick will probably be a top 10, Seattle a 25-32. I love the trade in any case. In the end did the Patriots collect any of the holdout fine from Branch?
Patrick Flynn, Hadley
A: I don't know if the Jets upped the ante, but my feeling is that if they had, the Patriots wouldn't have dealt with them, regardless of where the first-round pick was located. Seattle was a better trading partner because it keeps Branch out of the division. The Patriots intend to collect on the fines accumulated by Branch, which top $600,000.
Do you think the Pats traded Branch in part because of their long-standing tradition of not overpaying for players? Branch's numbers don't seem to warrant the type of contract he wanted. It was as if he knew the Pats had lost Givens and his camp thought they could pressure the Pats into paying more than he was worth.
Andrew Erwin, Portland, Ore.
A: More than anything, I think the Patriots have a system and they are disciplined to stay within that system. For example, if they gave Branch a $13 million signing bonus, I believe they would have a lot of explaining to do to players like Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi, whose combined signing bonuses are about $4.5 million less than that. If you negotiate under a certain system with one player, you need to be consistent with the next guy, unless his name is Tom Brady or Richard Seymour, both of whom I believe are future Hall of Famers. As for Branch's numbers not warranting the type of contract he received, I wouldn't judge him by the statistics. Because the Patriots spread the ball around, Branch's numbers weren't as high as they could have been. That being said, I felt that Branch received a richer contract than I expected.
With all of the discussion about Deion Branch's salary, I am interested more in his value to the Patriots than what other wide receivers make for other teams. From what I understand, Tom Brady and Richard Seymour are the highest paid players for the Patriots, which makes sense. But there are so many valuable players on the team. What are the salaries for Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Corey Dillon and Rodney Harrison, just to mention several veterans. It seems that Branch's value should not be higher than these players to the Pats.
Rick Mades, Delray Beach, Fla.
A: Bruschi signed a four-year, $8.1 million deal in 2004 that included a $3.5 million signing bonus. Vrabel inked a five-year extension in 2005 potentially worth $16.4 million, with a $5.1 million signing bonus. Corey Dillon signed a five-year, $25 million extension in 2005, with $6 million split between a signing bonus and option bonus. And Rodney Harrison's deal has been renegotiated a few times since he signed a six-year deal in 2003 that included a $2.5 million signing bonus. The deal Branch is set to sign in Seattle is a six-year package worth about $39 million, with about $23 million in the first three years.
If Deion Branch hadn't been traded and held out until Game 10 as expected, would he have been an unrestricted free agent in 2007, or could the Pats have then franchised him?
Tom King, Scituate
A: The Patriots could have still franchised Branch, and that was a big sticking point in his negotiations. If Branch was guaranteed that he'd hit unrestricted free agency in 2007, he would have reported to the Patriots and played out the season, his agent Jason Chayut previously said.
Given that the Patriots had a chance to sign Keyshawn Johnson for less money than they offered Branch, do you agree that they made a mistake? Did they have any inclination that Branch was going to take this adamant a stance?
Frank Novio, Mansfield
A: My hunch is that the Patriots are surprised it ended like this, and that they probably would have approached things a bit differently had they known this would be the way it unfolded. For example, they might have been more proactive to lock up David Givens prior to the 2005 season, one year before his contract was set to expire. Johnson would have also helped had the Patriots had a crystal ball and known they'd be without Branch.
OK, now that Branch is gone, please answer my question. Why do the Patriots have so much cap room left? Do you really believe they have put the best possible team on the field? With the highest average ticket price in the NFL, please explain to Patriot Nation where this money is going besides Bob Kraft's wallet?
KC, New Jersey
A: The salary cap question seems to come up at least once a week. My feeling is that if the salary cap space isn't used by the end of the year, then the team should be held accountable for not spending to the cap. But there is still plenty of time left, and that space can be used in a hurry on contract restructurings, player signings, or extensions. Also, the salary cap is a bookkeeping figure more than a figure that represents a total payout, so it's possible that a team currently close to the cap has actually spent less than a team with significant cap room.
I saw where you felt that Tom Brady was one of the "down" performers in the season opener. My feeling is that his poor game was because he only had 3 receivers dressed, and one of them was Mr. Drop (Reche Caldwell). He never looked comfortable as he actually had no one to throw to. Brady is a legend and unless he tanks 3-plus seasons, he will never be "down."
Dave Roberts, Vancouver, BC, Canada
A: I think Brady is the best quarterback in the NFL, but even the best can have an off day. I felt one of the most telling comments after the game was Brady speaking on the opening play of the game in which he was strip-sacked and the Bills scored a touchdown: "I could have done a better job on that play to recognize what they were doing, and I didn't. And it served me right that I got hit in the back of the head and fumbled." While Brady often takes blame for things that aren't his fault, I believe him 100 percent on this one. I think he misread the Bills' defensive look, called the wrong protection out, and nearly got himself hurt. One NFL defensive coordinator once mentioned that Brady is special because he is so smart and can avoid putting the team in the wrong play based on the look of the defense. That's why the opening play of the season opener was so surprising, and, in addition to a bad fourth-quarter interception, why Brady ultimately got a "down" rating in my book.
What's the problem with the playing field in Foxborough? I always think of Bob Kraft as being the best owner in the NFL and yet the football field has to be the very worse surface in the entire league. What's going on?
Dave Nelson, Vineyard Haven
A: With all due respect to the groundskeepers of Gillette Stadium, who I'm sure are trying their hardest to have a quality surface, that looked like a local Pop Warner youth football field on Sunday. I'm not sure what's happening with that.
While I'm sure the primary reason the Pats released receiver Jonathan Smith so quickly is because they looked at what they had and were disappointed, you have to wonder if this wasn't just another subtle Belichick move to get an advantage as well. Much was made of the fact that they grabbed Smith just as they were getting ready to play Buffalo and getting some info out of him. These are the little things that reinforce to me why Belichick is the best coach in the game, always looking to the tiniest advantage.
Robert McTague, Lawton, Okla.
A: Call me naïve, but I'm not buying this one. While the easy storyline is that Smith was used to provide insight on the Bills, I think this move was strictly made due to Doug Gabriel's health. When the Patriots made the decision that Gabriel couldn't play due to his hamstring, they had Reche Caldwell, Troy Brown and Smith as healthy receivers. Caldwell lines up on the outside, but Brown and Smith are more suited to the slot. They needed another outside receiver, and Bam Childress had more experience in that role than Smith. In addition, Bills cornerback Terrence McGee said that Smith was spotted outside the Patriots' locker room before the game, which might be an indication he'll be re-signed.
What is the logic behind teams signing players released from an organization and then releasing them shortly thereafter? Two cases in point: Jonathan Smith, waived by Buffalo and picked up by the Patriots, and released within a week. Same for Hank Poteat, released by the Pats, picked up by the Jets, then released within a week.
Seven H. Baron, Newhall, Calif.
A: Each situation is a bit different. With Poteat, it was probably a result of new Jets coach Eric Mangini wanting to get an up-close look at a player in which he had some background, to see if he would be an upgrade over what was already on the roster. Poteat offered some initial value because of his background with that defensive system. My assumption is that Mangini felt the players he already had on that roster were better fits.
Is there a chance the Pats will make a run at David Boston? If healthy, I think Boston could be a really good wide receiver. With Tom Brady throwing him the ball he could be the Comeback Player of the Year. Am I being overly optimistic on Boston?
Ryan Williams, Atlanta
A: Boston doesn't strike me as the type of player the Patriots would go after. I'd be surprised if the team went in that direction. Another e-mailer asked about the Patriots' possible interest in former Lions receiver Charles Rogers. I'd put Rogers in the Boston category. Don't see it happening.
Do the Pats receive a pick for Patrick Cobbs? He made the team then was cut?
A: Whether the Patriots receive a pick is yet to be determined, which tells me that the conditions in which the Patriots would get a draft pick weren't based on Cobbs making the 53-man roster (which he did for the Steelers' Thursday opener). If Cobbs returns to the Steelers, it's still possible the Patriots could get a pick, but my understanding is that if he doesn't, they won't.
Regarding next year's draft, what picks do you expect the team to have considering their regularly assigned picks, from trades, and free-agent compensation? Is the upcoming draft considered deep?
Mike, New York
A: The Patriots currently have picks in each round but the fifth, plus an additional first-rounder and either a sixth- or seventh-rounder from the Cardinals for Brandon Gorin. They will also receive some compensatory picks for free-agent losses and I'd think there could be at least one third- or fourth-rounder for that, although those picks will depend on the performance of players like Adam Vinatieri and David Givens, among others.
I thought all along that the Pats were saving their cap space to sign Ty Law and/or Branch. I hope they will now use this money to keep Daniel Graham, Dan Koppen & Asante Samuel. Who else becomes a free agent next year? If Jackson, Caldwell and Gabriel can live up to expectations, I think the team will be fine with the running game leading the way.
Fred Scalese, Parkland, Fla.
A: I agree that the Patriots were holding out some cap space for Law and Branch, and in the end, the numbers were too high for their liking. In addition to tight end Daniel Graham, center Dan Koppen and cornerback Asante Samuel, the Patriots' 2007 free-agent class includes outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, receiver Troy Brown, linebacker Junior Seau, linebacker Larry Izzo, running back Patrick Pass, linebacker Don Davis, and running back Heath Evans.
When Tedy Bruschi returns, do you expect him to be teamed up with Junior Seau on most downs, allowing Mike Vrabel to move back to the outside? Or do you think Bruschi, Vrabel and Seau become a three-headed monster in the middle with Tully Banta-Cain joining Rosie Colvin on the outside? Thankfully Vrabel gives us flexibility for a variety of situations, I'm just wondering if we'll see more of Seau or Banta-Cain. Both look to be performing pretty well and suddenly there is a bit of depth in a position that looked pretty thin.
JD, Washington, DC
A: I don't think the Patriots will lock in one way or the other, but I do believe Vrabel is more valuable to the team on the inside right now. I wouldn't be surprised to see him play two series' at inside linebacker, then move to the outside on the third series with Bruschi and Seau inside for that one series. I'd also expect this to vary based on the specific matchup each week.
All through the offseason it has been highlighted that the Pats have problems in two areas: wide receiver and linebacker. What kind of rating would you give these two areas for Sunday against the Bills? And what, if anything can/should be done to improve them?
Peter Williment, London, England
A: At receiver, Troy Brown (2 catches) and Reche Caldwell (2 catches) performed about as expected. I didn't think they gained separation consistently, and felt the Patriots' lack of a dynamic threat in the outside-the-numbers passing game was evident at times. The linebackers would be split into two groups -- inside and outside. On the inside, I felt Mike Vrabel and Junior Seau struggled in the first half, before recovering in the second half. I thought the outside guys, specifically Rosevelt Colvin and Tully Banta-Cain, were more consistent throughout the game. Colvin was especially strong with three tackles, one sack, four quarterback hurries and one pass deflected. Banta-Cain also had a big rush that led to Ty Warren's safety in the fourth quarter.
In the first half the D-line had no pressure and the LBs seemed out of sync, but in the 2nd half the front 3 played better and the LBs made some key plays. Did you see anything in the d-schemes that we couldn't see on the offense-oriented TV coverage?
A: A few defensive players said there was an adjustment period to get used to the blocking schemes that the Bills were playing, in which Buffalo was able to knock the Patriots' linemen out of their assigned gaps. But the Patriots' line seemed to perform better in the second half.
What does the "practice squad" do and how do they interact with the starters in practice during the regular season?
Rick, Palmdale, Calif.
A: The eight-man practice squad is similar to what a Triple-A baseball team is to a major league squad. It's a feeder system of sorts. The players proceed as if they are members of the regular squad, attending meetings and taking part in practice. As we saw on Sunday, it's not unusual for a practice squad player to be elevated to the roster, as Bam Childress was bumped up. The big difference is in salary, as practice squad players don't receive the same compensation as those on the regular roster.