Albany’s Deion Branch made it to the Super Bowl last year with the New England Patriots – the team he helped lead to a Super Bowl win in 2005 with his MVP performance — but whether or not Branch will make the roster this year is still in question. He’s the first to admit at age 33, he’s lost a step or two.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Receiver Deion Branch knows his best days are over.
But is his career with the Patriots also coming to a close?
It’s too early to tell, and the Albany native doesn’t seem worried. But with young up-and-comers Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney, as well as a resurgent 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.
Coach Bill Belichick hasn’t given any indication of where the Patriots’ 2005 Super Bowl MVP 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 said this week at practice. “I respect everybody’s opinion. We all do. But the person making the final decision is coach Belichick.”
Branch, no matter whether he makes the roster or not, is a legend in New England. He tied a Big Game record with 11 catches in the Patriots’ 24-21 win against the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl, then the next season he had a career-high 78 receptions. He held out during a contract dispute the following season, was traded, then spent the next four somewhat forgettable years in Seattle. But when he was traded back to the Patriots early in the 2010 season, he began producing again: 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 — last year’s leading receiver in the NFL — 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.”
The Monroe grad 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, was Branch’s last time to state his case for a starting nod, a job ... whatever. When it was over, he still sounded like he needed to do more.
“We’ve got to come out here and do a lot better,” Branch said. “You can see those (defensive) guys are jelling together and, trust me, we’ll get it going.”
Branch says 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 a little more than 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.”