All of New England looked at each other when the Patriots traded away potential Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss in the fall. In exchange, the Patriots went out of their way to pick up receiver Deion Branch, quarterback Tom Brady's favorite target in the middle portion of the decade. Of course, everyone realized that Branch did not, and never did, have the same skill set as Moss, which meant a complete shift in offensive identity. With a seemingly weaker offense playing across from a young and inexperienced defense, giving up yards by the barrel, were the Patriots calling it a season?
Not so fast, said the Patriots. Branch paired up with Brady to become one of the more reliable pairs in the league, despite joining arms in the middle of the season. The offense didn't skip a beat and seemed to improve with the departure of Moss, which leads to the question:
What did Branch add to the offense?
First off, I'll say that with All Pro Wes Welker no where near his regular form, Brady was playing without his safety blanket in top form. Add in rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, with red shirt rookie receiver Brandon Tate, and it's clear that Brady was playing with a very inexperienced offense.
As a result, Branch turned into the most reliable and experienced receiver on offense. Just how reliable?
Branch tied for 10th in the league for lowest rate of dropped passes by receivers with 60+ targets, with a 5.71% drop rate. For reference, Welker finished 45th, out of the 55 receivers who qualified, with a 13.08% drop rate.
Compare that 5.71% drop rate of Branch's to Randy Moss's drop rate of 12.32% average over the past three seasons. That means that Randy drops over twice as many passes as Branch, and in the new offensive scheme of "chip, chip, chip away" Branch adds plenty of value.
Perhaps the Patriots realized that playing the deep game was eliminating Brady's strengths as a quarterback of making quick decisions and short accurate throws. Maybe the Patriots knew that Moss' time was up as a star receiver. Maybe they knew that Branch still had a great couple seasons left in the tank. For whatever reason, the Patriots made it out of the receiver exchange as the clear winners. They were able to shift their offensive identity to a less risky offense, where they could control the ball up and down the field with less fear of turning the ball over. For a young offense, that momentum meant plenty.
Adding Deion Branch back to the Patriots allowed the young Patriots offense to grow in confidence as they quickly integrated into the offense. Branch removed the pizazz from the offense in exchange for a lunch pail and stripped the playbook of its deep plays. For the rookies, that meant less to worry about and more time to focus on the rest of the plays.
Branch was not only an integral piece of the Patriots' revamped offense, but also the springboard for the young offense's success. We were all able to witness the great improvement of the offense this past season.
Next year? That means a full season of the offense under the young players' belts, as well as additional weapons in the running game. Oh yeah, and expect Wes Welker to reduce the number of drops. All those factors considered, the Patriots' should be feeling pretty confident about the offensive weapons.
A lot of the development is thanks to the addition of Deion Branch.