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Albany’s Branch may have to fight for spot on New England’s roster

Deion Branch was recently called “unimpressive” by the Boston Globe’s Greg Bedard after New England’s OTA workouts.

Deion Branch was recently called “unimpressive” by the Boston Globe’s Greg Bedard after New England’s OTA workouts.

FOXBORUGH, Mass — First Ochocinco and now Deion Branch?

Veteran receivers may begin dropping like flies for the New England Patrots this offseason as it appears the team is making a move to go younger and faster.

Earlier this week, longtime NFL wideout Chad Ochocinco, who restructured his deal this offseason and took a pay cut to remain with the AFC champions, was released after making several errors during New England’s OTA workouts.

And shortly before that move was made, Branch — an Albany native and former Monroe star who was the Pats’ 2005 Super Bowl MVP — was labeled as being “unimpressive” in his initial workouts by Boston Globe sports writer Greg Bedard, who covers the team.

Branch was re-signed by the team offseason, but it now appears as if his roster spot is not guaranteed.

“The guy catches everything but his burst is diminishing ... and he continues to be unimpressive,” wrote Bedard after personally observing Patriots OTAs, adding that “if not for Branch’s mind-meld rapport with (quarterback) Tom Brady, it’s unlikely he would have been re-signed after fading drastically down the stretch last season. (Competing receiver) Jabar Gaffney, spending most of his practice time behind (fellow receiver) Wes Welker in the slot, could begin eating into Branch’s reps.”

Branch, who was a key cog in the Patriots’ offensive attack that landed them in this past season’s Super Bowl — where they lost to the New York Giants for the second time in four years — saw his numbers drop slightly last season. However, that was mostly because Welker, the NFL’s leading wideout last year, and emerging superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was signed to the richest contract for a TE in league history Friday, garnered most of the looks from Brady. Branch, the team’s fourth-leading receiver last season, still posted solid stats: 51 catches, 702 yards and five TDs.

But shortly after Bedard’s assessment of Branch was published, ESPN.com football writer James Walker had a different take, saying Branch’s status with the team was on “solid footing” because of his veteran leadership and experience in the Brady-led offense.

Wrote Walker: “Branch is a veteran who knows the system well and continues to produce. A starter in 2011, Branch is a good receiver to have around for depth and knowledge.”

Brady then gave Branch a vote of confidence to boston.com in comments after the Patriots’ second OTA workout, vaguely referencing why an experienced wideout like Ochocinco — who failed to grasp New England’s complicated playbook last season, thus limiting his reps and production — might have been let go, while Branch was still around.

“I have to trust in Deion and Wes and all those guys out there to be in the right spot so I can play fast and anticipate what they’re doing,’’ Brady told the website. “If everyone is not on the same page, then it doesn’t work. A lot of what these (offseason) practices are about is everybody getting on the same page. The faster we can get up to speed and get better as a unit, the better we’re going to be.’’

One of Branch’s challenges, however, is wrapping his head around the wrinkles of the playbook of new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who took over the offense this offseason.

So far, however, Branch seems to like the changes and is adjusting to them up well — diminished speed or not.

“(Josh) has thrown a lot of different wrinkles at us,” Branch told Comcast Sports Net New England. “There ain’t too much (fooling around) going on because everyone is still picking up the offense. It’s a plus especially with a new offensive coordinator and doing the new stuff we’re doing.”

Branch, who will turn 33 this year, later added during an interview with WEEI Sports Radio in Boston that he still loves playing and has no plans to retire, whether he makes the Patriots’ roster or not. He is currently competing with nearly a dozen other wideouts currently in camp, all of them younger than Branch.

“I’m enjoying it. I love it each and every day I’m out there with the guys,” Branch said. “I’m still running around and having fun, daily. They make me feel young — you know what I’m saying? We’re always competing — we go through the bag drill, and we’re always competing. First of all, we’re teammates; we have one goal. We’re all on the same side of the ball. We’re all trying to make plays. They’re going to give everybody the opportunity to make plays. Now it’s just time to cash in.

“It’s always good. It’s a lot of fun too — a lot of fun. We’re having a lot of fun. We’re enjoying it.”