With so many additions during the offseason, and, of course, the looming presence of tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, it's easy to overlook the veteran wide receiver who remains a wild card entering his 12th season.
Former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch is back for his seventh season in New England, which spans two stints - the first beginning in his rookie year of 2002 and running until 2005, and the second beginning in 2010 when the Patriots reacquired him following his disastrous tenure in Seattle.
As previously stated, it's easy for Branch to get lost in the shuffle considering the additions of Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth, but Branch is still one of Tom Brady's favorite targets, stemming largely from his efforts in 2003 and 2005 when he combined for more than 120 catches and eight touchdowns.
Though he'll turn 33 in July, Branch figures to have a few more miles left on his 5-9 frame, and with more help on deep routes, he could be the unforgotten weapon in the passing game.
"I'm enjoying the new things that we're doing," Branch said this week at team workouts. "(I'm) just trying to keep up on everything as much as I can. Coach got all the guys, asking them to do a lot of things."
Branch is particularly excited to be reunited with former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who officially rejoined the team during the offseason after a brief stint as Broncos' head coach and Rams offensive coordinator. McDaniels was the architect of New England's offense during Branch's most successful season in 2005.
"I had him my last year, which was a great year," he said. "We didn't finish how we wanted to, but it was a great season. I think having him back here with all the new things that he's picked up is good."
Even if he doesn't replicate those numbers from 2005 under McDaniels' guidance (he caught 78 passes for 998 yards that season), Branch can serve as occasional deep threat and liaison between Brady and the younger receivers, many of whom will be relied upon to produce in 2013.
"Always," Branch said when asked if he is helping out the rookies, "and at the same time we're just trying to pick up some new things as well. Josh is throwing a lot of different wrinkles at us, and I think the guys are doing a great job."
The competition doesn't worry Branch; though there's a chance he could fall victim to the numbers game at the end of training camp, he enjoys the camaraderie and the rivalries that develop over the course of time, even if they threaten his job security.
"It's always good (to have competition), and lot of fun, too - a lot of fun," Branch said. "We're having a lot of fun, and we're enjoying it. There's a lot of different things in. (Not) too much playing going on right now, because everybody's still picking up all the different things."
After a disappointing loss in the Super Bowl, there won't be much "playing" in camp this summer, other than the occasional lighthearted humor to break up the monotony. This team is on a mission, much as it is every year, and there's the realization that the window of opportunity could be closing soon. Veterans such as Branch are among those who are on the final few laps, and they're looking to deliver soon in order to maximize the potential of the younger players on the roster.
Nonetheless, when asked if he's had time to reflect on his career up until this point, Branch said, "Not really." He's following the company line, which is win at all costs.
"I'm enjoying it. I love it each and every day I'm out there with the guys," he said. "We're having fun. They make me feel young."
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