Fiscal Discipline Cost Pats Branch, and Possibly More

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The New York Sun

The ongoing dispute between the New England Patriots and wide receiver Deion Branch ended yesterday, as the Patriots dealt the disgruntled receiver to the Seattle Seahawks for their first-round selection in the 2007 draft.

The trade ends one of the more ugly holdouts in recent memory. Branch was supposed to make $1.045 million on the final year of his original rookie contract, far below what he’s truly worth as New England’s top wide receiver.The Patriots were happy to offer a contract extension that would have significantly raised Branch’s salary for 2006, but it still didn’t pay Branch what the receiver (and his agent, Jason Chayut) believed he was worth.

And what is he worth? New England’s top offer averaged $6.2 million over the next three years, which would have been around the 15th highest wide receiver salary in the league. Chayut demanded that Branch receive “Reggie Wayne money,” referring to the new contract Indianapolis recently gave the younger of its two starting wide receivers. That contract will pay Wayne $40 million over six years, but with bonuses slanted toward the first few years, Wayne will make more than the $6.7 million yearly average of the deal.

Two weeks ago, the Patriots announced that they would allow Chayut to speak to other teams and pursue a trade. It seems clear that the Patriots believed that no other team would be willing to make Branch one of the top 10 highest paid receivers in the league. It turns out they were mistaken.

Seattle and the New York Jets each offered Branch a contract with similar numbers to Wayne’s, but neither would offer the Patriots what the team deemed fair compensation. The Patriots demanded a first-round pick for Branch, even though, out of the many wide receivers traded in recent years, not one was dealt for a pick that high. This off-season, Denver sent a secondround pick to Green Bay for Javon Walker — considered by many to be better than Branch.

With their offense looking dismal in a 9–6 victory over Detroit this weekend, and star receiver Darrell Jackson still struggling with a knee injury that cost him 10 games last year, the Seahawks decided to give in to New England’s demands. Seattle will sign Branch to a sixyear, $39 million contract that pays him $23 million for the first three year: $7.7 million a year, roughly equivalent to what Oakland is paying superstar Randy Moss.

Is Branch worth that kind of money? Based on his track record and potential, the answer is no. His career highs, set last year, are 998 yards receiving and five touchdowns. Last year was also the first time he ever stayed healthy for all 16 regular season games.His MVP performance in the Super Bowl was spectacular, but it came against an Eagles defense that routinely gave up big games to the team’s top wideouts while shutting down the rest of the opposing passing attack.Very few NFL observers would list him as one of the top 10 wide receivers in the league.

But the Patriots were mistaken if they thought Branch was just another replaceable part. He was clearly the best receiver on the team, and Brady’s go-to target. And a look at players with similar stats over a three-year span demonstrates the potential that Branch still has at the age of 27. The most similar receiver is longtime Rams great Henry Ellard; not only are the raw statistics similar, but Ellard was also under 6 feet tall and played college ball at a mid-major university (Branch went to Louisville, Ellard to Fresno State). Each player missed half the season when they were 25, due to injury.All Ellard did from age 27 to 29 is average 1,363 yards and seven touchdowns a season. Other players with similar career paths to Branch’s include Isaac Bruce and Cris Carter.

The Patriots model is to build a team with many good players making good wages, rather than a team with a few great players making big money and a lot of players at the league minimum. The Patriots will not let other teams set the market for player salaries, and only pay top dollar to two players: quarterback Tom Brady and defensive end Richard Seymour.

There’s only one problem with the Patriots’ strategy of choosing depth over highly paid stars: They forgot to go out and actually add depth. With the Branch trade, the Patriots are now $13.8 million under the salary cap for 2006, yet they have depth problems at the same positions where they lost free agents this summer: wide receiver and linebacker. Since rookie Chad Jackson and recent trade acquisition Doug Gabriel are nursing injuries, the Patriots had just three wide receivers active on Sunday.The linebacker position is so shallow that the Patriots had to talk Junior Seau out of retirement.

The Patriots are proud of their economic discipline, but it’s possible they’ve now gone too far the other way.Are they so wary of overpaying that they have lost a sense of the actual market value of players — not just stars, but the role players they like to build around? If the Patriots miss the playoffs because injuries force them to put subpar talent on the field, the answer is “yes.”

Mr. Schatz is the editor in chief of FootballOutsiders.com.


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