Branch competing for playing time with Patriots

Wide receiver Deion Branch knows his best days are over.

Is his career with the Patriots also coming to a close?

It’s too early to tell, and Branch doesn’t seem worried. But

with Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney and Donte’ Stallworth added to

the competition at his position, the 33-year-old Branch might be

fighting not only for playing time, but for a roster spot with New

England (No. 2 in the AP Pro32).

Coach Bill Belichick hasn’t given any indication of where Branch

stands.

”My job is what I’ve got to do in the meeting room and on the

football field, I think your job is just to critique,” Branch told

reporters Thursday. ”I respect everybody’s opinion. We all do. But

the person making the final decision is Coach Belichick.”

Branch was MVP of the Super Bowl in 2005 when he made 11 catches

in the Patriots’ 24-21 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. The next

season, he had a career-high 78 receptions. He spent the next four

years with Seattle then was traded back to the Patriots early in

the 2010 season. He had 48 catches for them that year and 51 last

season.

But he wasn’t the deep threat the Patriots needed. Now, they

have Lloyd and Stallworth to stretch the field, and Wes Welker and

Gaffney to handle shorter routes.

And Branch, entering his 11th season, knows his physical skills

have declined.

”The longer you play, everybody knows you’re going to lose a

little bit here and there,” he said, ”but, overall, I think that

the mental side of the game I will never lose. … I prepare myself

in the offseason as if I’m 23, 24 years old.”

Branch sat out the preseason opener against New Orleans, but has

practiced steadily since then and could play in Monday’s game

against Philadelphia. In practice, he’s played with the second and

third units, as well as the first. But, he cautioned, that’s not an

indication of where he stands in the depth chart.

”Before we came in, one thing coach made clear, (is) `you guys

are going to be with different groups of guys,’ and he wants to see

guys work,” Branch said. ”`It’s not about what group you’re with.

Just go out and get the job done. Do what we ask of you, not who

you’re on the football field with.’

”Plenty of time you see (quarterback Ryan) Mallett with the

first group. Does that mean he’s going to start? I don’t know.

That’s coach Belichick’s decision.”

No, Mallett will not start.

Tom Brady will, and he has more targets this year. But they

still have plenty of work to do before opening the season Sept. 9

at Tennessee.

”It certainly hasn’t been all perfect and it’s not going to

be,” Brady said, ”but you have to be mentally tough enough to

push through this time of year, and go out there and come out

tomorrow and try not to make the same mistakes again.”

Defense dominated during Thursday’s practice.

”Our offense is, obviously, one of the best in the NFL to go

against,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said, ”so the more work we

have against them, obviously it’s going to help us out when we play

an opponent.”

Friday’s practice, the last of training camp, could be a big day

for the offense.

”We’ve got to come out here and do a lot better than what we

did (Thursday),” Branch said. ”You can see those (defensive) guys

are jelling together and, trust me, we’ll get it going.”

He thinks this year’s camp is more competitive than others he’s

been in. But for him, nothing’s changed. He said he always tries to

work hard and do his best. Then it’s up to Belichick to decide who

makes the team and how much they play.

So with just over three weeks before the regular season opener,

is it time for players to make their moves for roster spots?

”I can’t answer that,” Branch said. ”I don’t know how long we

have. The only thing we can do is just come out and do what coaches

ask of us, take advantage of the opportunities and go from

there.”

NOTES: Wide receiver Julian Edelman and linebacker Niko

Koutouvides were thrown out of practice by Belichick with about 45

minutes left after a scuffle during a punting drill. ”That’s Bill

trying to make sure that everybody’s on the same page and, those

guys, they’re fine,” Ninkovich said. ”They’ll be back (Friday).”

What message was Belichick trying to send? ”Don’t fight,” he

said. … Running back Stevan Ridley and safety Tavon Wilson left

practice with minor injuries. … Gaffney sat out after apparently

hurting his thigh on Wednesday. Belichick said he’s

”day-to-day.”

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