Deion Branch delivered everything the Patriots could have asked of him when they drafted him in the second round in 2002.
He was a major contributor on two Super Bowl championship teams in his first three seasons. He was the MVP in Super Bowl XXXIX, catching 11 passes for 133 yards to help the Patriots take down the Eagles. And Branch was always one of Tom Brady’s favorite targets, catching 24 touchdown passes over seven seasons in New England, trailing only Rob Gronkowski, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Julian Edelman on the list of Brady’s top targets. But Branch can’t help but wonder what might have been had contract talks not turned sour in 2006, leading to a holdout and a September trade to Seattle.
“Man, I’m telling you. There ain’t no telling how many more rings . . . ” Branch said by telephone recently, trailing off. “We talk about it, we laugh about it. Don’t take it the wrong way, nothing’s funny about it. But it’s like, man, we couldn’t get that together for whatever strange reason. And you look back on it like, was it really, really worth that?”
But Branch, now 39, never let the contract talks get in the way of his positive feelings for Brady, Bill Belichick, the Krafts, and the New England area. He still comes back two to three times a year for signings and appearances, and will be honored on Nov. 28 at The Sports Museum’s annual The Tradition event at TD Garden. Also being honored that night are Paul Pierce, Jim Lonborg, Richard Petty, Don Cherry, and Julie Foudy, with Jackie MacMullan and Tom Caron emceeing the event.
Branch will be introduced by former teammate Troy Brown, and was able to clear his increasingly busy schedule.
“It’s a great honor. When they called, I couldn’t turn it down,” Branch said. “Now that football is over, it’s all about my wife and kids, and I was just thankful my wife was like, ‘Yeah, we can make it happen.’ ”
Branch’s last full NFL season was in 2012, and now he spends his time raising his twin sons Deiondre and Deiontey (17), and daughters D’Ahni (13) and Nylah (10).
And when he’s not taking his kids to school or attending their basketball games and gymnastics meets, Branch keeps busy with his residential real estate company, flipping houses in Indianapolis, Louisville, and his hometown of Albany, Ga.
“The earliest stages are always the best, when you get to go tear up the whole house, put your ideas together, and you just make some other family happy,” Branch said. “And that’s my whole joy about it, having the opportunity to provide for some family, to put someone in place to purchase their own house. That’s what it’s all about.”
But as much joy as he gets in building homes, it can’t quite compete with the excitement of football. Branch wants to get back into the game, leaving his options open for something either in the NFL or college football.
“Real estate is probably my thing right now before I kind of jump into either doing some stuff in the front office or coaching pretty soon,” he said. “I can kind of feel that itch again.”
Branch has nothing but positive memories of his seven seasons with the Patriots, and still vividly remembers the call from Belichick after he was drafted in the second round in 2002.
“Just him laying it out on the line: ‘We want you, we’ve been eyeing you, we’ve had an opportunity to bring you here, we just hope you continue to keep doing the things we’ve been seeing on the film and more,’ ” Branch said. “And I was just letting him know how much I truly appreciated the opportunity, and that I’ll give you everything I got. And I think that we both did that. They upheld their agreement and I upheld my end of the bargain, and it turned out some great memories.”
Branch had 213 catches for 2,744 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first four seasons, and contributed to two Super Bowl victories, but the bargaining is where things got a little sticky for Branch and the Patriots. Entering the final year of his rookie contract in 2006, Branch didn’t like the Patriots’ contract extension offer, held out of training camp, then was traded for a first-round pick in September — but not before tampering charges were levied against the Jets (and later dismissed).
“If I ever felt like I regretted anything, that would probably be the one thing,” Branch said of his holdout. “I wish we could’ve got everything together and actually made amends. Coach Belichick and I talk about it all the time, what we could’ve been within that four-year gap that we had.”
But however testy the negotiations got at the time, they never got personal, because the Patriots were more than happy to trade back for Branch in October of 2010.
Branch was still productive in his second stint, catching 115 passes for 1,553 yards and 11 TDs over parts of three seasons, helping the Patriots reach the Super Bowl again in 2011.
“The first thing that was said when Coach gave me the call saying, ‘Hey, do you want to come back? Let’s try to fix this,’ ” Branch said. “There was no love lost, no battered feelings throughout the course of the negotiation. It was just one little small topic that we just couldn’t get over. It really wasn’t that serious. We just maybe had too many people in our ears, in my ears and their ears, and that was probably the part that interfered. But it’s in the past, and I love those guys even more now.”
Thuney tops at answering the bell
The Patriots’ bye week afforded a good chance to look at the players’ snap counts and how they were used through the first 10 games:
■ Trent Brown missed 28 snaps in the Titans game, leaving left guard Joe Thuney as the only Patriot on either side of the ball to play every snap this season (689). Thuney has been incredibly durable during his three-year NFL career, missing only four snaps as a rookie and five snaps last year. But David Andrews (677), Tom Brady (675), and Brown (661) have all played at least 95 percent this year.
■ There are no “ironmen” on the defensive side of the ball, but Devin McCourty (98.7 percent) and Stephon Gilmore (98 percent) are close. McCourty has missed just nine of 691 snaps, while Gilmore has missed 14. Add in McCourty’s 124 special teams snaps, and he leads all Patriots with 806 played this year. No other defensive player is over 87 percent.
■ James White’s usage for the rest of the season will be interesting to monitor. His 127 touches lead the Patriots, and his 66 catches are the most among NFL running backs. But in a perfect world, the Patriots would like to preserve his body a bit more to ensure he’s healthy for the stretch run and the playoffs.
However, White has a decent chunk of money at stake with performance incentives. White gets $250,000 each for 50 and 60 percent of snaps, and for 1,000 and 1,200 total yards. White has currently played in 60.2 percent of snaps this season, and with 792 total yards, is on pace for 1,267. White’s base salary is $1 million this year, so he has a chance to double it with incentives, and likely doesn’t want to take too many breaks in the Patriots’ final six games.
■ The “Ghost Award” goes to Chris Hogan, who has played more than 79 percent of snaps this year (545), plus another 100 on special teams. The coaches clearly have trusted Hogan enough to put him on the field for significant snaps, yet there is a disconnect with Brady, who has only targeted Hogan 36 times, for 23 catches, 333 yards, and two touchdowns.
■ After looking like he might not have a big role this year, Jason McCourty has emerged as a durable, dependable player. He is fifth on the Patriots in defensive snaps (554, 80.2 percent), and has added 105 special teams snaps. McCourty sign a revised, incentive-based contract before the season, and he gets $200,000 each for 40, 50, 60, 70, and 80 percent of snaps. If his strong play continues, he’ll earn the full $1 million.
Mexico City back in play — for now
The NFL announced last Monday morning that the league will hold another game in Mexico City in 2019, and the news was mostly framed in a positive light. Despite the horrid field conditions at Estadio Azteca, which forced the NFL to move the Chiefs-Rams game to Los Angeles at the last minute, the league still appears to be committed to holding a game in Mexico City. But read through the fine print, and the reality seems to be that the future of the NFL in Mexico City is very much in doubt beyond 2019.
The NFL’s press release specifically stated that “the third game of the existing agreement signed in 2016 will be played in 2019 at Estadio Azteca.” That’s important, because last year, right before the Patriots played the Raiders in Mexico City, the NFL announced a new three-year extension of the agreement, from 2019-21.
If the NFL was going to proceed with business as usual, there would be no need to note that next year’s game is part of the original agreement. Instead, the NFL made no mention of the extension in Monday’s press release announcing the 2019 game. It looks like the extension is off for now, and the NFL is giving Mexico City one last chance to get it right next year before committing to the future.
A usually responsive NFL spokesman declined to comment, furthering my hunch that the NFL is in wait-and-see mode on Mexico City.
NEW ENGLAND STAR GAZING
Slim pickings for Pro Bowl thus far
The Patriots are often not represented at the Pro Bowl because they are too busy playing in the Super Bowl. But this year’s Pro Bowl might not have any Patriots because they aren’t earning the votes. The NFL released its initial fan vote totals for the Pro Bowl last week, and there are no Patriots among the top 10 vote-getters, nor are there any Patriots among the top two at their position. Tom Brady ranks sixth among quarterbacks. Rob Gronkowski is fifth among tight ends. Stephen Gostkowski is ninth among kickers. Cordarrelle Patterson is sixth among kickoff returners.
James White, perhaps the most deserving Patriot, isn’t among the top 10 running backs. Trey Flowers and Stephon Gilmore aren’t ranked in the top 10 at their positions, either. Voting runs through Dec. 13 on NFL.com and on Twitter.
One player who isn’t even on the ballot is Julian Edelman. Per the NFL’s policies, players who are suspended for performance-enhancing supplements are ineligible for the Pro Bowl and any individual honors (MVP, etc).
CLASS OF 2019
Hall semifinalists a banner group
The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced 25 semifinalists for the 2019 class, and it won’t be easy paring the list to five. First-timers Ed Reed and Tony Gonzalez look like the only two locks, and first-timer Champ Bailey looks good for enshrinement, as well.
That leaves only two more picks from a long list of deserving players and coaches, which includes Tony Boselli, Don Coryell, Alan Faneca, Tom Flores, Edgerrin James, Jimmy Johnson, Ty Law, John Lynch, Clay Matthews, Richard Seymour, and Zach Thomas.
Law has been knocking on the door for several years and might still have to wait in line behind two defensive backs with better credentials, Bailey and Reed.
Coaches should have better representation in the Hall of Fame, including Flores for his two Super Bowl titles, Coryell for his incredible influence on the modern passing game, and Johnson for building the best dynasty of the 1990s and revolutionizing the “draft points chart” that is still used in some form today.
The Hall of Fame will whittle the list to 15 before announcing the five enshrinees during Super Bowl week. Also to be included in the 2019 class are Contributors Gil Brandt and Pat Bowlen, and Seniors finalist Johnny Robinson.
This duo leaves them in the dust
■ Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill now has 10 touchdowns of 70-plus yards since entering the NFL in 2016. No other player has more than three such touchdowns in the same time span.
■ Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald leads the NFL with 14½ sacks, three more than any other player (Danielle Hunter), which is incredible in its own right. He also has created minus-130.5 yards on sacks, which is 50.5 more than anyone else in the league (Chris Jones).
Donald is also tied with Hunter for the most tackles for loss this season (16). And Donald is head and shoulders above his peers — Geno Atkins and Sheldon Rankins are tied for second among defensive tackles with seven sacks, or less than half of Donald’s 14½. This year’s vote for Defensive Player of the Year is an easy one.
Lions president Rod Wood was pretty definitive in a TV interview this past week that he believes Matt Patricia is the right coach to build the Lions “for many years to come.” But just because Patricia appears safe doesn’t mean that changes aren’t coming this offseason for the 4-7 Lions. Patricia inherited offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and his entire offensive staff, yet the Lions are 21st in scoring, looked sloppy on Thanksgiving, and Matthew Stafford seems to be taking two steps backward this year. Cooter and his offensive coaches should probably get their résumés ready . . . No quarterback has had more passes dropped this year than Blake Bortles (23). Andrew Luck is second (19), followed by Patrick Mahomes (18). Tom Brady has the 12th-most drops (12), and Russell Wilson has the fewest (four) . . . Likewise, two Jaguars lead the league in dropped passes. Running backs usually don’t get too many contested passes, but T.J. Yeldon leads the NFL with seven drops. His teammate, Keelan Cole, is tied with two other players with six drops. On the other end of the spectrum is James White, who has just one drop in 89 targets this year. Julian Edelman leads the Patriots with three drops.
Now that we’re getting to the end of the year, padded practices are few and far between. NFL teams are only allowed to hold 14 padded practices all season, and only three over the final six weeks of the regular season. In the postseason, teams can hold one padded practice per week.