July 26, 2012; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch runs a route during the Patriots opening day of training camp at the team practice facility. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-US PRESSWIRE
Oh that Bill Belichick. About as predictable as it gets. I saw that Deion Branch cut from a mile away. And just last week I was telling my friends that it was just a matter of time before the team made a deal to acquire Greg Salas, who I had totally heard of before this weekend and in no way had to look up on the internet before writing this article. And lo and behold, once again, I was right on the money. That's why they pay me the big bucks, folks. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a date with Mila Kunis, and I can't decide whether I should take the Maserati or just fly there with my new jetpack.
Its moves like these that make me wonder a) why I even bother trying to analyze the Patriots roster, and b) why I spend so much time on all the major sports websites reading what all the experts, analysts, and NFL insiders have to say. Absolutely nobody saw this Branch cut coming. Sure, it seemed fairly plausible a few weeks ago, but as all the receivers the Patriots brought in this offseason slowly started to go the way of my hair, everyone felt that once again Deion Branch had proven why he's a valuable member of this team. And then, out of nowhere, in true Belichick fashion, another one of the all-time great Patriots is sent packing, and what was once one of the team's deepest and strongest positions is now looking a little thin.
So what does this mean for the Patriots? Where does the team go from here, and what are their options going forward? I figured that since I was so spot on regarding the Branch cut, I'd give my opinion on what will be happening next. Follow the jump for the various avenues the team can pursue from here, in order of what I think is most to least likely.
Branch returns. This is by far the most likely scenario. Apparently Branch's locker is still in tact, he is still listed as a Patriots WR on his Twitter feed, and he has openly expressed his desire to return to the team. Furthermore, there are already reports circulating that Branch and the Patriots will be reunited before long. While I wouldn't go so far as to say Branch doesn't have anything to offer other teams, he is far more valuable within the Patriots system, and I can't see him garnering all that much interest on the open market. He might not be back right away, but I have a strong feeling that Branch will be catching passes from Tommy B in 2012.
Hernandez to the slot. Aaron Hernandez already lined up as the slot receiver on multiple occasions last season, so it's not like moving him out wide will be some kind of new wrinkle to the New England offense. One of the many things that makes Hernandez so dangerous is his ability to come out of the huddle right off the line in the traditional tight end position and then option out wide if Brady sees a potential mismatch in the defense. While I'm sure New England would have been utilizing this ability regardless of whether or not Deion Branch was on the field, the fact that the Patriots are now a little thin at receiver might mean that Hernandez will see more time in a pure receiver type role. The team has three rather large bodies in Rob Gronkowski, Daniel Fells, and Visanthe Shiancoe, and they may be shouldering the pure tight end responsibilities this season as Herndo wreaks havoc all over the line. It may very well be Hernandez's versatility that made Branch expendable.
Full speed ahead. Maybe the current receiving corps is good enough for the coaching staff. Welker and Lloyd are primed to see the most snaps as the team continues to operate heavily out of the 2 TE sets, and Salas, Edelman, and Matthew Slater will rotate in and out of the lineup as they are needed. Even though they didn't keep a fullback, the team could still be highly committed to the run, and thus what the team has will be sufficient.
Another receiver coming in. Josh McDaniels clearly liked what he saw in Salas before he was sidelined with an injury, and so I'm confident that Salas will be able to contribute to this offense within the next few weeks. However, there's just no way that Salas can have the knowledge, insight, experience, and understanding that Branch brought to the New England offense. Bill Belichick has been something of a trading machine as of late, so there's an outside chance that he's looking to acquire another receiver via trade. I ultimately don't think it will happen...but I'm also the guy that had both Branch and Jabar Gaffney as roster locks, so what do I know.