Deion Branch #84 of the New England Patriots catches a 61-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter against the Denver Broncos during their AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Gillette Stadium on January 14, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
Admit it: when the Patriots traded for Deion Branch back in 2010, you never thought his second stint with the Patriots would last this long. Branch had an expiring contract after the season, he had very limited productivity in Seattle, he couldn't stay healthy, and it was obvious his physical skills were declining.
Yet, when Branch stepped onto the field for the Patriots against the Ravens in week five of the 2010 season, something just clicked. He was in an immediate groove with Tom Brady, picking up nine catches for 98 yards and a touchdown in a dramatic come from behind win. And while he finished the year with more than 700 yards and 48 catches (in 11 games with the Patriots), earning a one year extension on a restructured deal in the process, fans were immediately looking for an upgrade across from Wes Welker.
When the Patriots picked up Chad Ochocinco last summer, Branch was supposed to get edged out of a starting spot. But what did he do? He picked up over 700 yards in 15 games as a starter, then caught a few huge passes in the postseason, including a 61 yard touchdown in the AFC Divisional round against the Broncos.
However, after the year, he apparently began to get edged out once again. Branch sat and waited as an unrestricted free agent, as the Patriots applied the franchise tag to Wes Welker, restructured Chad Ochocinco's contract, and signed unrestricted free agents Anthony Gonzalez, Jabar Gaffney, Donte Stallworth, and Brandon Lloyd. Some began to whether there was even room for Branch on the training camp roster.
Once the team re-signed Branch to a cheap one year deal in late March, most thought he was still a longshot to make the final roster.
But through it all, Branch overcame the odds once again. He beat out Ochocinco and Gonzalez - cut before training camp. And after yesterday's cuts of Stallworth and Gaffney, it appears that Branch has not only secured a roster spot for himself, but also earned himself a job as the #3 receiver. While he probably won't start - Brandon Lloyd has his spot more than secured - it's clear that Branch will play a key role for the Patriots in 2012.
Branch is a consummate professional and fan favorite. And for the third straight season, he's primed to play a big role for the Patriots. At age 33 and with declining athleticism, it's fair to ask how much longer Branch can produce consistently. But for now, it's a feel good story for a franchise great.