Pats get smarter Branch;Receiver: `I'm not here to replace Randy Moss'
Whether Deion Branch is the dynamic receiver he was during his first go-round with the Patriots remains to be seen.
Same goes for how fast he can pick up the offense, whether he'll be able to reconnect with Tom Brady, and even whether he'll play Sunday when the Patriots host the Ravens.
But Branch, whom the Patriots acquired Monday night in exchange for a 2011 fourth-round draft pick, knows one thing, which he made perfectly clear yesterday after his first practice with his new/old teammates.
"I'm not here to replace Randy," Branch said. "I'm not Randy Moss. I wasn't Randy Moss when I was here, and I'm not here to replace him. My job is to go out, do what the offense asks of me to do, and that's what I'm going to do."
Branch did that exceedingly well for the Patriots from 2002 to '05. He ranks 13th in franchise history with 213 receptions - 14 for touchdowns - and 17th with 2,744 receiving yards.
Drafted in the second round (65th overall) out of Louisville, Branch helped the Patriots win back-to-back Super Bowls in 2003 and '04. He was named MVP of the latter game after a Super Bowl record-tying 11 receptions.
That mark was matched by Wes Welker three years later.
But it went from sweet to sour when Branch staged a holdout during the summer of 2006. He was ultimately traded to Seattle for a first-round pick, which the Patriots used on safety Brandon Meriweather.
Five inconsistent and injury-plagued seasons later, Branch finds himself back where it all began.
"No regrets," Branch said. "I wish it never happened, but no regrets. When I left, there weren't any issues between Coach (Bill) Belichick and me at all. We talked during the course of the (holdout) year - not a lot, but we spoke - and I truly thanked him.
"But it was nothing. We didn't leave on a bad note, and I think that's why it was so easy to return. Because we both understood what was going on."
Many things have changed around here since Branch left for the Pacific Northwest.
It didn't take him long to notice the Patriot Place development that has engulfed Gillette Stadium, or all the new faces inside the locker room. There are eight Patriots on the roster who were previously teammates of Branch, including offensive linemen Matt Light and Dan Koppen and, of course, Brady.
"It feels good to have him back," Koppen said. "He's just a good player. He made a lot of plays for us in some big-time games, and you want those type of players on your team. He's a good guy to have around and a good friend."
Branch walked out to practice with Brady by his side. He had jet lag from traveling and soon found himself in hyperspace as he tried quickly to get reacquainted with an offense he was once fluent in.
"It's a little different," Branch said. "Some of the concepts and stuff are still the same. I still remember some plays. The crazy part is they didn't call those plays today. The ones I remember, I thought I could just get in there, but they didn't call those plays. Coach had to pretty much fill me in before I ran those (other) plays."
Like a true Patriot, Branch said any decision on playing Sunday would be made by Belichick. He obviously hopes to play, though.
The pressing question is what Branch will provide the Patriots once he does play.
While known as something of a possession receiver, Branch has shown an ability to get down the field with at least one catch of 49-plus yards in five of his nine seasons. He's averaging a solid 12.6 yards per catch for his career.
If that speed and explosiveness are still there, the Patriots will have added at least a moderately deep threat to their offense.
Either way, Branch said he's a smarter player than when he first played here.
"I truly understand the game and how to study guys, my opponent," he said. "I think the first four years I was playing off all athleticism, and I was getting away with it for a little bit. ... But I think now I just know how to sit down and break down the film and watch my opponent."
Branch feels like this is a homecoming of sorts, although interestingly enough, he doesn't have a home here anymore. After it sat on the market for quite a few years, his condo finally was sold last year.