||06-27-2005 05:55 PM
ESPN Insider Pasquarelli:WRs ready to break out
Branch ready for even bigger things in 2005By Len Pasquarelli
As the owner of a pair of Super Bowl rings, and the reigning most valuable player in the NFL's title game, New England Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch is on a pretty phat roll, as even he acknowledged the morning after his team claimed its latest championship.
"You do wonder," Branch conceded only a few sleepless hours after the Patriots defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX, "just how much better it can get."
Those who have observed Branch over the last couple of years, particularly in his brilliant Super Bowl performances in consecutive seasons, wonder the very same thing about the three-year veteran wide receiver. Provided the former Louisville star and second-round draft choice can stay healthy for the entire schedule, after missing seven games with a knee injury last year, 2005 might be the season in which the question is answered.
Branch has 21 catches for 276 yards in the last two Super Bowl games, the most prolific numbers ever rung up by a receiver in consecutive title contests, and has authored big plays in the passing game just about every time the Patriots needed one. But his Super Bowl productivity, his output in general over the past two postseasons, has overshadowed some regular-season inconsistencies.
In three seasons, Branch has averaged 45 catches, 582 yards and three touchdowns, nice numbers but hardly overwhelming. Branch has never caught more than 57 balls, rung up more than 803 yards or scored more than four times. One factor has been injuries; he has yet to play a full, 16-game schedule. Another element is a New England offensive design that spreads the football around, as was evidenced in 2004, when 16 players had at least one reception apiece.
Yet ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Âœ as Branch demonstrated in Super Bowl XXXIX, when his 11 receptions included six for first downs, with four of them coming in third-and-long scenarios ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Âœ the lightning-quick wideout has developed as the receiver in whom quarterback Tom Brady has the most trust. And even in an offense that is so obsessed with distribution quotas, that could translate into a breakout year for Branch in 2005.
As is the case with St. Louis wideout Kevin Curtis, whose season-ending three-game spree last year could springboard him into dramatically increased prominence in 2005, winning the Super Bowl MVP award should catapult Branch to a new level of excellence.
A few other young veteran wide receivers who could have breakout seasons, or significantly increased output, in '05:
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢ Antwaan Randle El (Pittsburgh): One of the NFL's most effective slot receivers his first two seasons in the league, Randle El was forced to start a career-high seven games in '04 because of an injury to Plaxico Burress. The departure of Burress in free agency means Randle El will be a full-time starter in 2005, and also means he won't get to work nearly so much out of the slot, where he was accustomed to facing single coverage. In his first five starts of '04, Randle El struggled some on the outside, averaging just 2.2 catches and 32.4 yards and failing to score. But clearly, he found a comfort zone in his final two starts, when he had 12 receptions for 230 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢ Keary Colbert (Carolina): The broken leg suffered by Steve Smith in the season opener in '04 forced the Panthers' second-round choice into the starting lineup, and he responded well, with 47 catches for 754 yards and five touchdowns. The departure of Muhsin Muhammad means that Colbert will go to camp as the starter next month. The return of the explosive Smith, a bona fide long-ball threat, means Colbert will have a speed complement he didn't have a year ago. Colbert should be able to do what he does best, work the intermediate areas ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Âœ and occasionally get deep on unsuspecting cornerbacks.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢ Donte' Stallworth (New Orleans): Smooth, fluid, incredibly fast, maddeningly injury-prone. In three seasons, the former first-rounder has averaged only 6.3 starts, principally because of his recurring hamstring problems. But he also has averaged 14.8 yards per reception and has put the ball in the end zone every 7.8 catches. If he can stay healthy (and he did appear in all 16 games in 2004 for the first time in his career), Stallworth and Joe Horn could compose one of the most explosive wideout tandems in the league.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢ Charles Rogers (Detroit): Limited to only six games in two seasons, Rogers must feel that he is cursed, having fractured his collarbone in consecutive years. When healthy in 2003, Rogers flashed plenty of playmaker skills, with 22 catches for 243 yards and three touchdowns, and great athleticism. Now the Lions have a pair of fellow first-rounders, Roy Williams (2004) and Mike Williams (2005), to put on the field with him. Secondaries can't cover them all.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢ Antonio Bryant and Andre' Davis (Cleveland): Despite starting just seven games for the Browns in 2004 after being acquired from Dallas in a trade, Bryant had 42 catches for 546 yards. With his Cowboys statistics, he had 58 receptions for 812 yards and four touchdowns. There is no denying Bryant's talent. His temperament, though, is another story. Still, the three-year veteran, never a choirboy, has the skills to play a tune on most cornerbacks if he can keep his head straight. Davis has blazing speed and averaged a mind-boggling 26.0 yards per catch in '04, but he appeared in just seven games because of an injury. New quarterback Trent Dilfer has lauded both wideouts and acknowledged his surprise at how talented they are.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢ Bobby Wade (Chicago): In two seasons, Wade has yet to score his first touchdown, but that should (and had better) change in 2005. Wade will work opposite Muhammad, who figures to draw the bulk of the attention from opposition secondaries, and should find more room in which to operate. What will help even more, though, is if quarterback Rex Grossman returns from the 2004 knee injury that limited him to three starts and provides much-needed stability to what has been a revolving-door position in Chicago the last several years.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢ Greg Lewis (Philadelphia): A former undrafted college free agent, Lewis has only 23 catches in two seasons, but the Eagles feel he is an emerging contributor. In the team's three playoff games in 2004, Lewis averaged 22.8 yards on eight catches and had at least one catch of 30 or more yards in each of the three outings. If Terrell Owens isn't around, someone is going to get more playing time ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Âœ and will have to take up the slack.